The clip above is taken from the first televised debate between Kennedy and Nixon. I watched last night’s debate as did most of you. I thought that I’d take a moment to respond to some of the questions asked by Prof. Yolanda Pierce at The Kitchen Table before chiming in on what I thought was the most interesting and unexplored aspect of the debate. In quick order:
1. Why can’t we find a better moderator? There are more than a few young journalists (or young-ISH) who could have easily handled the debate format and the candidates better than Brokaw did. My vote goes to Farai Chideya. But the reason that she (or someone like her) didn’t get the nod has everything to do with the politics of television journalism which privileges age and “journalist credibility”. Everyone shows the debate so it isn’t about ratings here…rather it’s about the journalists who have the most credibility among their peers. They let Ifill into the club, but notice that she only works the vice-presidential debate. They choose someone like Brokaw because of the very attributes you (rightly) critique. He’s older, he’s conservative, he won’t throw the candidates off, he conveys stability.
2. Where there no better questions submitted by the alleged millions of emails? Yes. But the problem here is that elites chose the letters that were used, and they didn’t want to choose letters that would spook either the candidate or the moderator. The Open Debate Coalition recently sent this letter to both candidates urging a new format, one based on a bottom-up Digg-type model. I like this idea although it’s hard to see how the views of intense minorities would get represented in such an approach.
3. Who came up with the town hall format? McCain suggested an entire series of town hall meetings at the beginning of the campaign. He felt that he worked best in more intimate settings where he could reach out and connect with the crowd. During each election the candidates get together with the debate committee to figure out how many debates there will be, what style the debates will use, and probably the moderator too (which is another reason why someone like Farai Chideya would never be chosen). For what it is worth some argue that if this were really a town hall debate (with a real town hall) McCain would’ve been better off. I doubt it for reasons I share below.
4. Must every debate disintegrate into warmongering? In a post-9/11 context I think that war mongering and a reference to Israel are prerequisites. Unfortunate because we have much more important issues to talk about. Unfortunate because it also promotes an America that we need to discard as soon as humanly possible.
Now back to that clip. The first thing that stands out is Kennedy’s open statement where he clearly states the difference between the Democratic and Republican theory of governance. This something that Obama hints at but never comes out and states directly, because he doesn’t believe the political climate allows him to. I disagree…but what do i know?
But the SECOND thing that stands out?
One of the things that distinguishes this series of debates with previous ones is the work of CNN. Along with the pundits, they’ve given a group of regular American citizens a device that captures their sentiments about the candidates as they speak, providing what we call “feeling thermometers” in real time. So as they speak you see two lines representing average feeling thermometer scores of the men and the women, moving up, down, or staying constant as the candidates answer questions. On a number of occasions both lines were flat while McCain spoke…FLAT. As if he weren’t even there. I didn’t see this happen with Obama at all. I do think this is because Obama is smarter, and more capable.
I also think it is because he is more photogenic, and charismatic.
The second thing that stands out about the clip above is how comfortable Kennedy looks on the screen compared with Nixon. In fact Nixon looked…well, evil. Now we can make all types of statements in hindsight about how perhaps he actually was evil, but I’m not going there. All I know is that seeing McCain on that television screen I thought of a dead man walking. To this extent it isn’t about finding a format that McCain works best in. Television, radio, print. He’s got a talent deficit that has nothing to do with his personal politics that he simply cannot overcome.
And this is why he’ll lose, likely taking the Southern Strategy with him.