By Tom Shales
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Jackie Gleason, famous comedian of first-generation television, often played an everyman character named Joe the Bartender -- but it was everyman Joe the Plumber who unintentionally stole the show last night at the final presidential debate between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, aired live from Hofstra University in New York. It was an unusual situation: a real man who became apocryphal before the night was over, so often was he summoned as an example of this or that by whichever candidate found it expeditious to cite him.
News organizations no doubt set to work scrambling to find Joe the Plumber and give him the rest of his 15 minutes of fame; the electronic media are ever on the lookout for ways to trivialize the democratic process. Meanwhile, the other most-conspicuous notable name mentioned at the debate was George the President -- George W. Bush, whom McCain made reference to in a line reminiscent of Lloyd Bentsen's famous rejoinder to Dan Quayle that "you are no Jack Kennedy."
It took weeks, months, but McCain and his people finally came up with a snappy and succinct way to distance the Republican candidate from the hugely, wildly, almost incomparably unpopular Bush and to undercut Obama's frequently repeated reference to "eight years of failed policies" that Obama says Bush propagated and McCain will continue.
"I'm not President Bush," said McCain, looking at Obama as he normally seems so loath to do. "If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."
It was the best line of the night, probably scripted, but political expert George Stephanopoulos on ABC News said in his postscript that McCain should have used it in the first debate, not the last. There were other ghosts of debates past, including one that seemed to go barely noticed: Obama wore a flag pin in his lapel, something he had been superficially chided for failing to do in the April Democratic debate moderated by Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson. McCain stood there with a naked lapel, nary a teeny-tiny flag in sight. Maybe he wore flag cuff links or a flag tie tack.
Post-debate pundits seemed to feel that McCain started out strongly but then settled back into old patterns and repetitious rhetoric that probably did nothing to persuade those elusive undecided voters to cast their ballots for McCain instead of Obama. But Obama brought no new tricks to the table, either, relying instead on old arguments, using 50-cent words such as "prioritize" and "reprioritize" that have to be turn-offs for many in the audience, and starting too many answers with "look" or "well, look" as in "Well, look . . . we expect political campaigns to be tough."
McCain may deserve kudos for cheekiest trick of the campaign when he twice tried to ridicule Obama for being eloquent. This seemed a new tactic: cast doubt on a candidate who seems suspiciously articulate, as if misusing words, fracturing syntax and bumbling through sentences were signs of honor. If that were the case, George W. Bush would be revered instead of lampooned nightly on the David Letterman show (where McCain is scheduled to make a notoriously delayed appearance tonight).
The tone and toughness of the campaigns themselves occupied too much of the time, but the subjects raised by moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News did seem to encourage Obama and McCain to speak directly to each other, to mix it up as other debate moderators have tried, and mostly failed, to get them to do. Obama claimed that no fewer than "100 percent" of McCain's TV commercials have been "negative," which sounded like an overstatement to understate it. McCain brought up tired old charges against Obama of being pals with '60s radical William Ayers even though those claims have been shot down time and time again by the Obama campaign.
Without mentioning GOP vice presidential candidate and famous Alaskan hockey mom Sarah Palin by name, Obama referred to McCain's "running mate" and the raucous rallies at which she has spoken, with Obama looking askance at rally rowdies who shouted out "terrorist" when Obama's name was mentioned and even the unnerving and obscene "Kill him!" McCain got huffy, as he does with barely a moment's notice, and said he was "proud of the people who come to our rallies." Obama said it was incumbent on the candidates to "disagree without being disagreeable" and to avoid characterizing each other "as bad people."
Schieffer probably did the best job of any debate moderator in keeping the candidates from wandering off point and getting them to answer the questions he asked, though both candidates tried their darnedest to speechify rather than improvise something fresh and new.
On CNN after the debate, from among the roiling mob of commentators assembled for analysis (twice as many as were probably needed), Anderson Cooper wisely noted that people who watched the debate on the cable-news network or on another channel that relied heavily on a split screen -- Obama on the left, McCain on the right, visibly reacting to each other's allegations -- probably had a different impression, especially of McCain, than those who saw the debate as a series of single shots of each candidate.
On the split screen, viewers could see Obama laughing at charges made by McCain, a reaction that did seem to diminish the charges. Viewers also could see McCain looking somehow inflated and aloof. Sometimes he struck such a lofty pose that he could have been posing for a spot on Mount Rushmore. Other times, he looked as though he might explode.
"The reaction shots were killing McCain," said Democrat Paul Begala on CNN. "He looked like Grumpy McNasty again." In less risible language, commentator David Gergen agreed: "He looked angry. It was almost an exercise in anger management for him" as he struggled "to contain himself" while "Obama maintained his cool."
NBC News employed the tired and rarely helpful gimmick of bringing in a focus group of supposedly ordinary Americans to watch the debate and then react, with Ann Curry padding her part as she questioned the respondents. There were only six, a pretty paltry sample, but one woman (from Potomac Falls) said of the Republican candidate, "McCain's temperament is scary to me."
She could have been a Democrat repeating what has been one of the party's operative mantras of the campaign, part of a concerted attempt to portray McCain as a potentially dangerous hothead. Or the woman may have been honestly expressing what is a common concern among some voters.
McCain repeated his complaint that the candidates participated in debates instead of "town meetings" and said that by now, he and Obama could have starred in 10 town meetings together. There was an obvious irony in that, since McCain's performance at the one debate with a town-meeting format was among his poorest. Last night's, at least, was a step up -- but most likely the proverbial too little, too late.