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The First Presidential Debate: To Have the Room

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The First Presidential Debate: To Have the Room

I have to admit that I began watching the first presidential debate with a considerable number of preconceptions, so the notes below are more a record of slow evolution of opinions rather than up-to-the minute observations.

What were my opinions? That McCain, by virtue of being a Republican, is better at this stuff than Obama, “this stuff” being the nitty-gritty, the mud-slinging, the toughness, the way you win elections. Obama is a talker, not a fighter; his hope must be that through deluges of sheer verbiage he can drown out his opposition. That technique is interesting, in his case, because he’s a good talker, but it doesn’t work. Or hasn’t, yet. The opposition is floating on a comfortable swimming pool raft, maybe even the kind with a drink holder.

As I turn on the TV, having promised myself I wouldn’t listen to that much commentary, I hear Keith Olbermann saying that McCain has to be at the “top of his game,” and then I hear Chris Matthews saying, on the one hand, that Obama “better have some set pieces,” and then comparing John McCain to Admiral Queeg on the other. I understand the need of our commentators to frame these debates, conventions, and the like, but why must the framing always be so aggressive, so over-caffeinated, so quintessentially male? The intent is always to ramp up excitement and anticipation, but the effect for me, always, is one of deflation.

As the debate starts, I’m thankful that Jim Lehrer is moderating. He’s always been a comforting presence to me. He might also lend a note of maturity to the proceedings. And from the outset, he seems very gentlemanly, relaxed, aware of the urgency of the economic backdrop, but not nervous about it, or at all interested in promoting the tabloid fervor that’s filled the airwaves recently. To look at him, you would think nothing was wrong, almost—his professionalism could stem from the fact that he comes from an era when there was actual news to report, and public/political affairs were not so ... meta. Where the circumstances surrounding an event, the ephemera, become more important than the event itself, and, further, where any sort of event might stir commentary—a New Yorker cover, a fist bump, whatever’s available. What about the suicide bombers? What about the tensions with Iran, with Pakistan…?

The first question, about the recent economic problems we’ve been having, fills me with relief. I was hoping it wouldn’t be avoided or skimmed over, and it certainly wasn’t. And yet the response I get is not heartening. I want to hear an explanation of what happened, exactly, in 20 words or less, but I don’t get it; I wanted to be educated, as FDR might have done during the Depression. The candidates’ responses, here and elsewhere, seem to clash in a muffled way—no one candidate’s attitudes ring loudly enough to resound. I find myself pleasantly surprised, overall, by Obama’s performance. While his remarks carry their trademark low-key tone, they are also very simple and very direct; he makes the 5-6 points of his plan very clear, which I rarely see in campaign speeches, his or others.

McCain, like Obama, though few people give him credit for it, has a command of language, or at least stands for the valorization of language in his speeches. I can’t say I believe in the purpose his lengthy lines are intended for, but I do respect their general complexity. In this debate, though, his sentences seem often disconnected, unrelated to the question at hand. He wastes valuable seconds thanking his hosts and expressing concern about Ted Kennedy, then addressing the toll on “Main Street.” But there’s no connection to be had here—it’s all the traditional platitudes, mixed into a goulash of social and economic risk.

Once the conversational part of the response begins, in which the candidates are allowed to talk to each other, the pettiness begins on both sides. They both flash their angry smiles: McCain’s stiff and somewhat surprising, every time it happens, Obama’s with a little too much dimple. So I haven’t gotten my summary, they haven’t made their positions on the crisis overly clear (in addition to not discussing how they felt about being part of the conversation), and yet they still seem to be arguing. Over what? Is it that they feel obliged to argue?

On the question of sacrifices necessary in their plans due to the economic crisis, neither is terribly succinct. Obama wins on clarity this time, but not on memorability; here and elsewhere, his words drift into your ear, you like them, and then they drift out. Because I’ve listened to a lot of his speeches, I remember them, and so I suppose his approach is working with me, but I wish I had some sense of the passion that’s driven him to this point. McCain aims directly at the question, and he is quite direct on spending, if his message at times seems too simple. Simplicity, as I often say to my hopeful friends, wins. Or has a chance at it.

As the focus shifts to the war, things get more interesting, and more aggressive, at least relatively. The candidates’ positions on the current war, and on future wars, should be evident to anyone who reads the newspapers or has some ability to predict liberal vs. conservative thinking, and so their responses to the various questions raised tend to bleed together. I find myself unsettled, at various points during their discussion, by sides I have not seen before and by sides I have.

McCain fully displays his stale grandfatherly side, the voice filled with the impulse to reassure, to quiet doubts of him, even at a time when his listeners need more reassurance than he could ever offer, and also at a time when they could not be more doubtful. He also uses a tone I haven’t heard before, but one which is apparently quite common with him: the angry tone. It comes out with each of his oft-cited statements of Obama’s inexperience, it comes out when he talks about Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel statements (even turning into a stage whisper, somewhat Reagan-esque, when you consider that he named Reagan his favorite statesman), and it comes out, oddly enough, when he doesn’t say anything at all. I don’t mind seeing anger in political candidates, but if that’s the emotion that comes through strongest on the night of a debate, rather than compassion or, at a time such as this, concern, then I feel misgivings. Is it best to make anger at an opponent your most distinguishing characteristic at such an event?

I was unsettled, on the contrary, to see Obama give a similar performance to the ones he’s given before. He added nothing new to his anti-war rhetoric outside of the bracelet moment (when he matched his veteran’s bracelet with McCain’s), or in the series of “You were wrong” reproaches of McCain, or in the citing of McCain’s “Bomb Iran” song. He states the facts as they are and as 90% of his voters must know them. But can we say he lost? Or McCain won?

In watching this debate, a viewer would have to fight against the temptation to award brownie points based on political bias. Obama has been praised widely for looking at his opponent when his opponent did not look at him. I’m not sure if, in balance, this matters much. It matters as an expression of attitude, but certainly not as a matter of presidential qualifications. Anyone can pivot their trunk. The aim should be, for such a candidate, to control the conversation, to have the room. And neither did.

We also have to avoid giving points to either candidate based on our sense of experience. Obama’s praise always carries with it, like a silent letter in a word, the understanding that he’s never done this before; McCain’s praise, when he receives it, always carries with it the understanding that he’s a seasoned Washingtonian. Moral aspirations are more important than anyone’s experience, or lack thereof, at this historical moment.

Max Winter is a New York City-based poet, critic and editor. His poems are collected in the volume The Pictures and have been published in the Denver Quarterly, Volt, The Yale Review, Octopus, The Paris Review, Boulevard and elsewhere. He is a poetry editor of Fence.