WASHINGTON It started with a singer lampooning all the candidates, eliciting some winces. There was an animated cartoon that looked like Dick Cheney. A gay ex-general bared his soul. There were people with props and questioners with passion. There was humor, drama and poignancy. It was great!
For two hours this past Wednesday CNN and YouTube joined forces to bring the eight Republican white men in suits vying to be president together for a debate that was actually worth watching!
The fireworks! The digs! The mocking aspersions flying around the auditorium!
OK, enough with the exclamation points. But it's going to be hard to go back to the blow-dried news babes and guys asking boring questions the candidates long ago learned how to answer glibly without a drop of perspiration on their un-furrowed brows.
While political columnists such as David Broder, the dean of them all, have been smiting their chests pleading for more meaningful presidential debates with actual follow-up questioning, CNN and YouTube, which sends out videos submitted online, came up with an innovative solution: Let Americans send in video clips of their questions directly to the assembled candidates. And about 5,000 Americans responded.
It was too bad there was time for only 34 to get on air. But on the plus side, there was time for moderator/celebrity newsman Anderson Cooper to follow up and steer questions. At the end of the two hours, the audience, the viewers, Cooper and even the candidates seem to have enjoyed themselves.
The same format was done once before, last summer, for the Democratic candidates, with a snowman asking one of the 39 questions. For that debate about 3,000 people submitted video questions, ranging from a woman with breast cancer seeking to know if she would have a better chance of living if she had health insurance to a father who had lost one son in Iraq and asking if he could lose a second child there.
But Republican candidates had balked at the format, with some of their aides insinuating that the questions would be barbed or too liberal. So the fact that the YouTube debate among Republicans finally happened was no small feat.
Besides real people asking real questions of often-not-so-real candidates, another good aspect of the YouTube innovation is that the questions and answers are all posted on the YouTube Web site for those who didn't have a chance to watch on TV.
At their leisure, Americans can ponder their choices. What does Mitt Romney say now about gays and abortion? What did Rudy Giuliani say that got Mitt's goat? Why do people say Mike Huckabee is witty? Is John McCain making a comeback? Can anybody out-Tancredo Tom Tancredo when it comes to bashing illegal immigrants? Is it Duncan Hunter or Hunter Duncan? Is Ron Paul a flake or the libertarians' new hope? Is Fred Thompson naturally craggy without his "Law and Order" makeup?
There have been so many dreary debates going up the mountain and down the mountain this year that we needed some comic relief. We got it when an editorial cartoonist named Nick Anderson submitted a cartoon character of Vice President Cheney with the question: "Will you grant your vice president as much power and influence as I've had? And remember, before you answer, I'm watching you!"
But all the questions represented serious issues, from amnesty for illegal immigrants, to the national debt, to cutting federal spending, to reforming the income tax, to farm subsidies, to gun ownership, to crime, to abortion, to the death penalty, to water boarding as torture, to gay rights, to taking the Bible literally, to paying for Social Security, to new space exploration initiatives, to repairing America's infrastructure.
There will be great debate about how CNN chose the questions and whether this new format is just a rehashing of the old formulas. And at the end of the evening, there was no clear winner, and no candidate came off as a total loser.
But we got a much more nuanced look at the candidates' strengths and weaknesses and personalities. We saw why Republicans are having difficulty making up their minds on a nominee.And some of us had a good time.
Scripps Howard columnist AnnMcFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail: amcfeattersnationalpress.com