Ever since televised debates became the focus of presidential campaigns, I’ve been bemused by how odd subjects, having nothing to do with the issues that should be guiding people’s choices, come front and center. Quemoy-Matsu in the Kennedy-Nixon debate; the metaphoric rape of Ms. Dukakis and the appropriateness of capital punishment (most people, beside candidate Dukakis, were for it). Now it seems to be the correctness of Gov. Perry’s condoning of HPV inoculations — as if, at a time when our economy is in dire straits, and we are in unnecessary and bankrupting wars, the use of inoculations for HPV is on anyone’s minds, except as a debate issue.

Which raises the validity of the debate format as anything edifying and beyond showmanship. Questions are not answered, but become the springboards for candidates’ speeches they’ve readied to spiel whenever they have the floor. Questioners allow themselves to be passive performers and tools of this charade of a “debate.” Thus the public is left to make choices on the basis of superficialities, candidates’ looks, poise, appearance (Nixon perspired and JFK didn’t), and not the substance of what is said. Then everyone goes to a spin room to rationalize errors and help audiences draw their conclusions, as if the candidates hadn’t already spun their pitches, in lieu of answering questions. The debaters get away with totally fraudulent responses — “First day in office, I’m going to close down X agency, throw out the tax code,” rather than go to inauguration balls and get sworn in, all totally beyond their ability to do those things, even if they meant to. No one challenges these remarks.

It is entertainment, yes; but it also is consequential. The parties and the media should set new rules governing presidential debates. It is such a critical time in our nation’s history; we need to know what our prospective leaders think about the country’s critical issues, like their views on rhubarb subsidies and casual Fridays at the office.

Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington-based lawyer, author and literary agent.