Political debates, perhaps more than any other aspect of public life, are designed as lessons in civics, the study of the rights and duties of citizenship, but Sunday’s debate between Conrad Burns and Jon Tester in Hamilton turned out to be more a course in civility, the rights and duties of citizens to mind their manners.

The only place more appropriate than the Hamilton High School Performing Arts auditorium would have been the gym. This was no exchange of ideas. This was a pep rally. You could tell by the T-shirted automatons lined up at the door or clustered inside in adjoining seats, like church groups visiting “The Tonight Show.” The Burns people wore white T-shirts, tucked in, and the Tester people wore goldenrod or orange, loose. The anticipatory excitement, the itch for a fight, was the sort rarely seen off a football field.

Despite what certain scolds will try to tell you, nobody really cares about the issues, except in the most black-and-white sense: pro-war, antiwar, etc. Hardly anyone really understands the issues, and anyone who even comes close has to grant that the job Burns and Tester are fighting over requires enormous amounts of calculated maneuvering that lends itself poorly to the promissory one-liners we demand of them on the campaign trail.

This campaign is about character, and the only real character issues are these: Is Conrad Burns a buffoon, a liar and a crook, and/or is Jon Tester a dirty rotten liberal clutching at Barbra Streisand’s purse strings. Yes, this is a relatively stupid way to elect a representative, but that’s the way we do it.

Anyone who hadn’t already made up her mind about any of the above must have been baffled at the process. Conrad Burns was never asked to explain his relationship with Jack Abramoff; Tester never had to answer a tough question about Iraq. Sen. Burns argues with the petulance of a child, which is more than a little disturbing in a man of his position. Tester played the soft-talker, sounding plenty sane, but like he was bumming even himself out, until Burns provoked him and he responded with a smugness unbecoming. Both men tossed red herrings and drive-by insinuation with abandon. It was ugly.

And then there was that crowd, clapping wildly, murmuring in dissent, screaming, hooting and hollering, interrupting the candidates (just Burns, actually) with pointed derision. Finally, a Burns kid up front had enough and yelped, “Show a little respect!” at his candidate’s tormentors.

He had a point. The Tester people showed terrible manners.

The guy two rows behind him had a point too. He leaned over to deliver it: “Respect has to be earned.”

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