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The Second Presidential Debate: What I’ve Learned

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The Second Presidential Debate: What I’ve Learned

I’m a skeptical person, always have been. I don’t suffer fools gladly, and in fact, I don’t suffer smart people that gladly either. I was skeptical about both Obama and Clinton when they were running against each other, and I was skeptical of all of the Republicans because ... I’m a leftie skeptic. I’ve been skeptical about debates, too. I’ve wondered what it is, if anything, we watch a debate for. We get our impressions of the candidates, let’s face it, from the sound bytes the media offers us. If we ’re really curious we might go to a candidate’s website, or, if adventurous, we go to a speech. Evaluations of debates tend to be rather gossipy at best. Who sighed? Who said something stupid? Who looked good? Who didn’t look so good? And yet these debates, from my prematurely wizened perspective, have been somewhat different.

One thing prolonged exposure to a candidate can give us is a sense of their personality. Of course, we know that sense of personality is filtered through the act they’ve been coached to put on, so we can’t ever know as much as we think we can. And yet, in this season, candidates’ outer personalities are gradually crystallizing as they appear over and over. During his public appearances and his speeches, Obama has always seemed measured and extremely controlled. I’ve found this frustrating much of the time, and I’ve gotten into it with Obama supporters over my desire for him to be more proactive, to be more aggressive, to pick up the mudshovel every now and then. McCain, on the other hand, has seemed grumpier and grumpier as time has passed. He began his campaign as an avuncular guy who spoke in well-constructed sentences and expressed a plethora of gentlemanly sentiments about his plans for the race. Increasingly, though, he’s seemed a bit frazzled. As if, somehow, he would be friendly as long as he knew he was in control of a situation. He’s measured, too, but in the way a person wearing an iron corset might be measured. And his gentlemanly sentiments seem to be dropping off of him like so much dried skin.

In any case, I won’t make any indication of winners or losers here—I don’t believe that those terms pertain in a conversation between two people. In answer to my own earlier question, we watch a debate to learn something. And so my comments below have more to do with what I’ve learned, rather than what the clutch of commentators wants to call “points.”

Both McCain and Obama get off to strong starts in response to the first question, about what the recent economic bailout would do for retirees. Obama is communicative, comfortable in his interaction with the crowd. He suggests that the employees of AIG who treated themselves to a resort vacation should be fired, an unusually strong statement, which part of me, the more pugnacious part of me, appreciates. McCain seems comfortable at this moment as well. He talks easily, he moves his body freely, he’s dynamic. And he’s also more vocally nuanced than he has been in the past. In the last debate, his speech was more like a loud murmur than anything else. Here and later, he uses The Whisper (the one he uses when he’s trying to scare his audience) to dramatic effect. Stage whispers appeal to us because they tend to broadcast the truth of the words being spoken. He also begins his recycling of FDR’s “my friends” here, a move that should enable and amplify the parodic siege against him.

It is in the candidates’ discussion of the blunt question as to how our recent bailout will help average citizens that the nastiness promised by the media begins to surface. At the conclusion of his response, McCain links Obama to Fannie and Freddie, which would be enough of a cheap shot by itself, made even more so by the fact that the questioner is African-American. This is, of course, not as barbaric as it seems, merely good argumentation. Why wouldn’t McCain try this? Obama’s largest support group is within the African-American community, and has been since he began running for President. Why not try to turn Obama’s “base” against him? However, the chances of this working are slim, and are made even slimmer when Obama smiles as McCain is speaking. Obama uses a smile the way McCain uses a whisper. It’s a persuasive, reassuring tool. It’s also, more importantly, a fire extinguisher. Obama responds clearly and firmly to the attack, citing McCain’s own dubious lobbyist connections. I’m relieved that he’s responding this way, given that it’s what the situation calls for. Here and elsewhere, what’s notable about Obama’s approach is his economy of action. He doesn’t slap back unless he feels it’s necessary, and when he does slap back, he uses just enough force to make his point.

As we head into the next question, which is how, essentially, voters can trust either candidate (good one!), the differences between these two become even sharper. Obama responds quickly, outlines his plans concisely, and mentions that McCain voted in favor of Bush’s budgets. As he calls himself a financial reformer and digs Obama for never taking on his party, McCain starts to sound as if he’s running out of breath. But this breathlessness is not from exhaustion. The sound in his voice, the shakiness, is not the sound of someone who’s been doing a vigorous workout. It’s even more familiar. It’s the sound of someone in a tense conversation that hasn’t quite turned into a shouting match. The breath quickens, the decibel level increases slightly, the words come out a bit more quickly ... will the conversation stay under control? Will it turn into something ugly? Will the guy with the shaky voice manage to make his point? And yet Obama doesn’t have this tone, even in the slightest. His voice is as deep and professorial as it usually is, although more direct and succinct tonight than on other nights. He hems and haws a little bit, certainly, but that’s because ... he hems and haws.

When the two candidates are asked about how they might prioritize health care, energy, and education, another moment occurs which seems crucial to me. McCain has to ask Brokaw to repeat his list (of three items), so that he can write them down. I’m not just taking him to task because I might harbor liberal sentiments—this seems a royally clumsy move. Why write this down? There’s only three items—can’t he memorize them? And then, frustratingly enough, he says there’s no need for priorities, that we can multitask. The obvious question would be, of course, we can multitask in this fashion, but should we? Obama gives a level-headed response, declaring a reasonable set of priorities, and I begin to enjoy his consistency. Where I might before have found it irritating, it has, indeed, begun to grow on me.

When the candidates are asked what they would sacrifice in the future, due to our state of economic Montezuma’s Revenge, McCain mentions an overhead projector at the University of Chicago’s planetarium which apparently drew a multi-million dollar government investment during Obama’s term in state office. Again, Obama smiles and doesn’t respond, a perfect example of the restraint I mentioned earlier. You can see his thought process: he doesn’t believe it’s going to be worth it to take time to explain that the projector in question was actually the central projector of the planetarium, without which many, many opportunities for college study and also for children’s education would have been lost, per a recent statement by a professor at the university. It’s almost as if, at times, Obama were channeling Ezra Pound playing tennis with Ford Madox Ford; the apocryphal story is that Pound used to sit down between swings of his racket.

The volleys continue, and Obama stays relaxed. McCain gets off some good ones: he equates trying to grasp Obama’s plans to nailing jello to a wall (I wonder how that would survive in a writing class); he accuses Obama of voting for a bill “full of goodies” for large corporations; he implies that Obama isn’t what he seems, in every way. And for each attack, he gets the same controlled, even-tempered response, particularly strong during discussions of taxation and health insurance. Though Obama’s mentioning his mother’s own struggles with insurance companies could be seen as a bit of a cheap trick, it still works, and it is still remarkably persuasive.

It’s interesting to consider, however briefly, how a moderator can affect, or not affect, a conversation of this sort. In the last debate, I found Jim Lehrer’s presence to be quite comforting. If the speakers stepped out of line, he censured them, but with a relatively gentle hand. Gwen Ifill’s presence during the Vice-Presidential debate was similarly soothing—she managed to comport herself with a great deal of professionalism, although you would have to wonder what she might have been thinking, having just published yet another in a long series of laudatory books about Obama. If she was put off by Biden’s general windiness or Palin’s abrasiveness, she didn’t show it. Brokaw, though, comes across as an over-anxious Eraser Monitor in this context. He’s awfully snappy about time limits, procedures, and other such minutiae; does he not realize that allowing the candidates to talk at a time when American morale is so dreadfully low might be helpful? In general, he dampens the mood of the event and makes it slightly more tense at certain moments. The audience, an awfully grim collection of people, tends to reflect this effect. Did someone tell them to be so grim? Or can they just not help themselves?

A discussion of the war is probably a nice place to end the evening, given that the topic exposes the strengths and weakness of both men. We all know their opinions by now, and the conversation offers nothing new. McCain uses The Whisper to suggest he will find bin Laden, that he knows how, that we just have to give him a chance; when he once again states that Obama “doesn’t understand” the nature of warfare, Obama shows that, like any good member of a debate club, he’s done his homework, and replies with a series of things he doesn’t understand, the largest of these being our reasons for entering the war in the first place, in the best sustained response of the night. Could McCain not have predicted that Obama would have a response ready for this jibe? I can imagine Obama sitting down and making a list of the possible attack lines he would field, and coming up with a response for each of them. And I’d have to imagine some variety of “he doesn’t understand” would have to be at the top of the list. Interesting.

There’s little in this debate that would make history, and yet at the same time it gave a very clear picture of where we are in the election race. We saw a calm Obama, calm because he’s ahead in the polls, but also calm because that seems to be his nature; and we saw a really annoyed and frustrated McCain, acting the way Clinton occasionally acted when debating Obama—impatient, offended, frustrated that he has to share the stage with such a junior figure who happens to be moving past him very quickly. But what can McCain, or anyone else, do? Obama has taken the stage, and he’s planning to stay on it, whether you, I, or anyone else likes it. I could think of much worse entertainment. Honestly. He’s roused a lot of anger from those who think his candidacy was “stolen” from Clinton—and yet it seems entirely possible that his ascendance was inevitable, any machinations that might have attended it notwithstanding.

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.