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A Showdown That Was More of a Letdown

By Tom Shales
Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Considering how adamantly John McCain advocated a "town hall" arrangement for this year's presidential debates, viewers might justifiably have expected him to thrive in the debate held last night in Nashville, since it followed that format. But there was little if any thriving in the hall.

Neither McCain nor his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, gave a particularly electrifying performance and neither seemed truly responsive to the current frightening headlines about the potential collapse of the U.S. economy. How could they be responsive and truly topical when both stuck to repeating campaign catchphrases and promises that dated back to the earliest stages of the political season?

One thing became a bit clearer: "They don't like each other," as commentator and Democratic strategist James Carville succinctly put it on CNN.

In their previous encounter, McCain appeared to take pains not to look his opponent in the eye, or look at him, period -- acting as if Obama didn't exist.

During the debate, McCain made another of his seemingly demeaning, nasty references to Obama. Describing legislation that had been backed by President Bush, McCain rhetorically asked, "Guess who voted for it?" and then answered his own question: "That one," he said, gesturing toward Obama. On CBS, commentator Jeff Greenfield thought "that one" would be "the major headline sound bite" of the debate, which goes to show, in part, how insubstantial the debate was.

But the snarled "that one" also contributed to McCain's image as a kind of mean old Scrooge, not so much a battle-scarred warrior as an embittered one. "Intemperate" is an adjective often applied to him, and again McCain demonstrated why. He also was perhaps the more relentlessly repetitious of the two men -- though Obama trotted out many a rerun from past appearances -- and was guilty of addressing the audience with his old standby phrase "my friends" at least 15 times in the 90-minute session.

Both candidates were untethered and free to move away from their perches in the Belmont University auditorium where the debate was held. McCain seemed to prowl around the room and Obama strode around it, as if silently murmuring "king of the castle" to himself. Neither candidate demonstrated a "fire in the belly" passion, though both had moving autobiographical moments.

It was incumbent on McCain to come up with something new, perhaps, since Obama is leading in many polls and thus arguably was wise to stick with his usual game plan. At times McCain was grandiose to an almost laughable extent, as when vowing like Sheriff John to hunt down Osama bin Laden (with his bare hands?): "I'll get him. I know how to get him, and I'll get him no matter what."

Moments after calling Ronald Reagan his great hero, McCain shifted gears and said, "My hero is a guy named Teddy Roosevelt."

The biggest wet blanket on the debate stage, however, was moderator Tom Brokaw, who also played a kind of military role: Commander of the Clock. Time and again, the NBC newsman inflicted frivolous rules on the candidates that only served to frustrate true debate and the kind of give-and-take that a "town hall" format supposedly encourages. At least twice, Obama started to answer one of Brokaw's questions only to have Brokaw call instead on McCain, which was rude and embarrassing.

Exactly what the rules were remained unclear, even though Brokaw explained them at the start of the debate. He called for "discussion" periods that seemed only a minute long; what kind of a "discussion" is that? If a discussion really did threaten to break out, Brokaw got grumpy and called it off. The least important thing on an occasion such as this are a bunch of arbitrary rules concocted by the debate organizers (with the counsel of both parties, Brokaw insisted).

Brokaw looked old. McCain looked old. Obama looked young.

Members of the studio audience gathered in the hall were chosen from among voters in the area who still identify themselves as "undecided," Brokaw said. How many intelligent, informed Americans still cop to that label? Maybe there is something commendable in waiting the maximum amount of time to make up one's mind about the better of the two candidates, but the audience members were hardly inspired when it came to fashioning questions for them.

Were the relatively minor matters that many of them brought up among the reasons they'd remained undecided? If so, they'd better wake up and smell the coffee -- if they can still afford coffee, that is. The debate had the aura of an almost meaningless ritual being conducted in a soundproof room while outside, panic and calamity were spreading like giant cracks in the earth.

The candidates seemed protected from reality rather than having met on the field of battle to confront it.

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