Since then, requests for interviews invariably, and very quickly I might add, boiled down to “what do the candidates wardrobes say about them.” Shortly after I was quoted in USA Today, a producer for WGN pre-interviewed me for a segment. I tried to explain to her that it was much more complicated than that. Could I go on air and briefly discuss the complexities? (Sure, that sounds funny now but at the time I was serious.)
She never called back and I learned my lesson. Give NBC, FOX, and CBS what they want.
Of course, though I was certain of the statement I made, I certainly didn’t know exactly how it would play out. As the nominees of each party emerged, lots of people jumped on the Nixon/Kennedy paradigm and they’ve pointed out the obvious similarities. One candidate is young, attractive and magnetic but lacks experience. The other candidate is old, not so telegenic, prone to soporific public appearances but chock full of experience.
(The role race has played in the campaign is beyond the pervue this blog entry, although you can bet the farm I have a lot to say about how it has been sublimated. Perhaps reading my blog “Sarah, Plain and Tall(tale)” might give you some idea….)
The Nixon-Kennedy debates were historically significant because they were the first to be televised and that very fact made it possible, if one were inclined to do so, infer something not only from the answers the candidates gave but how they looked while they were giving them. We all remember form high school history class that people who listened to the debate on radio thought Nixon had won, but those who listened and watched on television thought Kennedy won.
I’ve been waiting for 13 months for the moment in this campaign that would make the issue of image as compelling– and decisive– as it was in 1960.
I think that finally happened in last night’s televised debate.
I think we saw last night, for the first time in this election, how filtering a town hall meeting through television affected the candidates’ message and chances for victory.
The conventional wisdom had it that McCain was supposed to have the home court advantage in the debate because he had built his campaign on town hall style meetings.
Obama on the other hand was supposed to be at a disadvantage because he excelled as the rock star/politician in front of tens of thousands.
The conventional wisdom (an oxymoron, if there ever was one) got it all wrong.
Last night Senator Obama looked calm, cool and collected, in control and in command. . His youthful energy was contained but obvious in his statesmanlike posture. . John McCain on the other hand looked, anxious, jittery, scattered–aimless even– and inescapably old from what appeared to be a dowager’s hump as the cameras gave us panoramic views of him roaming the stage.
So what leads me to this conclusion? Watch the debate again and you will notice, if you didn’t already get the vague feeling when you watched last night, that Senator Obama’s choices in presenting himself to the studio audience and to the home audience contrasted sharply with Senator McCain’s.
Obama’s choices underscored his claim that in these turbulent times he is the leader whose judgement is superior to McCain’s while McCain’s choices undercut his claim that he is the safer, more experienced steady hand to lead us through this crisis.
Why do I say this? What specifically did each candidate do that we could see on television that could possibly affect how we perceived their message?
Senator Obama consistently focussed on fewer that three studio audience members while he was answering questions in a soothing voice and he minimally moved his entire body in order to do this. He usually pivoted slightly or he simply turned his head in another direction. This meant that not only was he connecting with the studio audience but he looked as if he were speaking directly into the camera, and therefore to us at home. The cumulative effect of this over 90 minutes allowed us to see Mr Obama as a calm, thoughtful, caring and decisive candidate.
In stark contrast, Senator McCain, roamed the stage, addressing multiple audience members and sections of the stage, haphazardly changing his tone and demeanor and repeatedly (and inexplicably) twirling in place, even walking backwards for no apparent reason other than to be closer to ( but not at) his podium.
If you were watching the debate on television, you saw that Senator Obama was always within the frame of the screen and the cameraman did not have to chase him around as he did with Senator McCain. At one point, out of what must have been sheer frustration on the part of the director, you saw both candidates on a split screen, and even then McCain couldn’t be contained in the frame.
The fact that the camera had to make such an effort to follow Senator McCain, he came off as erratic, uncertain and unfocussed. It didn’t help matters any that, unlike Obama, he never moved the microphone from his right hand, which meant that he was always forced to move his left arm only in order to make a point. This meant that his gestures were at once more highly exaggerated and repetitive. He could clearly be seen gripping the microphone tightly which made him look stiff and unnatural, as if he had suffered some sort of stroke which only affected the right side of his upper body.
On television, he came across as one of those grandpas who spend their spare time trying to keep someone (perhaps,”that guy”) off his lawn. This is hardly the image one wants to portray to an electorate looking for leadership in a crisis.
If it’s the case that Mr. Obama won the debate last night, as is the consensus, it is important to understand that it was in good measure because he was able to make us see him connecting to regular people and the television audience, undercutting any of the doubts that he is elitist, unprepared, and of unfit judgement to be Commander in Chief. He was able to accomplish this because of what he said, yes. But the image he projected on television underscored his message. The same cannot be said for Senator McCain.