The first debate is over, and while I don’t think I need to reiterate every moment of it, I would say that it came out pretty much as I expected: fairly even. No one landed a knock-out, there was no “There you go again” (Reagan) or “Poland is free” (Ford) moment, and both survived to debate another day. I was impressed by Mr. Obama’s demeanor; he was comfortable, sharp on his points, there weren’t too many hesitations in his speech pattern (an annoying habit he has), and he seemed to know what he was talking about without talking — too much — like he was repeating memorized index cards. Mr. McCain sounded serious and knowledgeable, but he kept going off on little tangents or going back to previous points, almost as if he was reminding us — or himself — whether or not he covered it. Both of them managed to dodge the lead questions when asked, much to the bemused annoyance of moderator Jim Lehrer.
Both of them were able to get in campaign talking points. Mr. McCain harped on Mr. Obama’s lack of experience, and someone had obviously been drilling him to say “Senator Obama doesn’t understand…” in every paragraph, whether it was relevant or not. Mr. Obama managed to slip in jabs about Mr. McCain’s judgment, and at one point was able to repeat “you were wrong” several times, much to Mr. McCain’s apparent annoyance. (Which seemed to be the point.)
As a student of theatre, the body language was very telling. Mr. McCain, either because of his height or his age, seemed to be slumped against the podium, and he barely moved. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, was relaxed and had no problem moving around. Also, Mr. McCain never made eye contact with Mr. Obama; he stared straight ahead at the camera and never gave his opponent so much as a glance. And he looked testy and sulky, as if he was put out having to be on the stage with this
uppity presumptuous young whippersnapper. That grumpiness may be his version of Al Gore’s sighs.
I have a feeling that more attention will be paid to the style of this debate and how the candidates came across to the audience regardless of what was actually said. It has ever been thus; not a lot of people in 1960 remember the substance of the debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, but they saw a self-assured and confident young man in Mr. Kennedy next to a glowering and sweating Mr. Nixon. Scholars say Mr. Nixon did a better job on the questions, but the public thought Mr. Kennedy won the debate, and it helped him in November.
The spinning has begun. The McCain campaign will cut and run with McCain’s shots, and the Obama camp will bring up their best shots, and the pundits, depending on their network, will say their guy won. There are two more presidential debates to go, but the big one — and you never thought it would matter — will be the one next Thursday in St. Louis when Joe Biden shares the stage with Sarah Palin. We’ll be there for that one.