WASHINGTON - Sex is used to sell just about everything except, unfortunately, presidential candidates and debates.
Wary of any whiff of scandal, the candidates are so risk-averse to showing any sexuality or having an opinion on anything too controversial that hasn't been tested with focus groups that they often come across as cardboard men with Stepford wives.
With the presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore absolutely dead-even, we'd be better served if we knew how these men really think about sex and the role of women than if we found out by accident, as we did with our current president.
In 1988, the country gasped when CNN's Bernie Shaw asked Michael Dukakis what he would do if his wife were raped. Programmed to be a no-nonsense, by-the-book candidate, Mr. Dukakis responded as if he were talking about throw weights.
This year's moderator of all three presidential debates and one between the vice presidential candidates, PBS' Jim Lehrer, should ask: “What would you do if your wife were unfaithful?'' “What did you tell your children about sex before marriage?'' “Do you think the government's role in the bedroom should be more extensive than it is now or less so?''
Mr. Lehrer won't, of course, because everybody is solemn and serious about debates, feeling compelled to intellectualize the life out of them. And the nation got rightfully tired of kinky, illicit sex in the past few years, finding out far more than it wanted to know.
Nonetheless, real questions about the real-life beliefs of Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore could be more informative than what they say about the federal government's minuscule role in education, or the possibility that the prescription-drug bills of the nation's poor will actually be paid, or what they think should be a fair price for a gallon of gasoline, as if they actually buy gas or pay heating bills.
A month later the nation is still debating The Kiss that Mr. Gore gave his wife at the Democratic convention, embarrassing some people but cleverly designed to show 1) passion, 2) that he's not like his boss, 3) that he likes his wife.
Not to be outdone, Mr. Bush kissed Oprah Winfrey (on the cheek) and sat with his wife Laura on Larry King Live.
In fact, both candidates decided to jumpstart their campaigns by going on such popular shows as Oprah, Jay Leno's Tonight Show, Larry King and Live with Regis to talk about such safe subjects as peanut-butter sandwiches and playing catch.
But Oprah, Jay, Regis, and Larry didn't go far enough.
In the real world, when these two men are alone (not a likely event now) do they watch smutty shows on cable TV? Would they pick up and look through a Playboy magazine?
Like Jimmy Carter, do they ever lust in their hearts? Did they have honest heart-to-heart talks with their children about sex? What do they think about the 1996 GOP standard bearer, Bob Dole, doing those Viagra commercials?
How do they feel about the fact that teenagers can buy birth control without their parents' consent? Do they want their children taught in school how to use condoms? Did they let their teenagers read pornography or watch any movies regardless of ratings?
What would they do if their wives got pregnant and wanted them, even as president, to take hands-on care of the baby, as happened in the British prime minister's house? Would they laugh and duck the question?
Do they think that it's a man's job to help do laundry, iron, run a vacuum cleaner, unload the dishwasher, dust under the bed, wash windows, and clean the bathroom?
With both candidates desperately seeking the votes of women, they might do better if they let down their hair, so to speak.
Mr. Gore told an MTV audience that he likes Stone Cold Austin, the wrestler, but doesn't like music that promotes violence against women such as Eminem's and Marilyn Manson's.
Why does he think there's such an upswing in the popularity of such music? What does he really think should be done about it?
Asked about winning the votes of women, Mr. Bush told Mr. King, “Women are very discerning people. They are going to ask the question, `What is the person's heart like?' They're going to care whether I care about my fellow human beings.''
He said that he has a “clear vision'' of how to give people more time. His answer is a tax cut. How would that give more time to most working women?
Mr. Bush says the hardest thing about campaigning is being away from home and missing his own bed. But does he make his own bed? America should know.