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The ABC’s Of Political Theater

Gail Shister
TVNewser Columnist

GOPDEM_14.jpgTheater and politics — is there a difference?

ABC News political director David Chalian says yes. His resume says no. Tomorrow’s Democratic-Republican debate-a-thon on ABC says maybe.

“I don’t think politicians are actors,” insists Chalian, 34. “Actors try to reflect something about the human spirit. Politicians try to project a vision for the future. One is art; one is very serious business.”

Chalian is a combination of both.

A theater and political science major at Northwestern, he acted in Tennessee Williams‘ The Rose Tattoo, directed David Mamet‘s Reunion and wrote his senior thesis on the relationship between the press and the presidency.

He even played Superman in a local TV ad for a restaurant. No tights, but there was a cape. “Fortunately, no tape of it exists,” he says.

Presidential politics have been a life-long obsession for Chalian. In first grade, he memorized all the presidents’ names — in reverse chronological order — to win the prize of being first in the lunch line for a whole month. (Talk about food for thought.)

Back to Presidential politics, tomorrow’s back-to-back, 90-minute Democratic and Republican debates begin at 7pmET from St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire.


A year ago, ABC pitched separate debate telecasts to its affiliate WMUR because the network thought there would be eight days between the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, according to Chalian.

In the fall, when the window was squeezed to five days, ABC suggested pairing up the debates into one night, Chalian says.

Among the new wrinkles, devised by moderator Charlie Gibson: Candidates will sit in a semicircle instead of stand behind a podium. The first 45 minutes of each debate will focus on three topics. And the opposing teams will shake hands during the change-over.

Stagecraft. Drama. Performative elements. Sounds pretty theatrical to us.

“It’s a total dream assignment,” Chalian says. “Seriously, I cannot believe I am in this job at this moment in this cycle.

“It doesn’t get better than this, because the stakes are so high and the characters are who they are and the individual narratives are so compelling.”

Even from the cheap seats, D.

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