October 1, 2004

Debate style.

Go somewhere else if you want substance. This post is about style.

Both candidates were different from their usual selves at the debate last night. Kerry had his skin-tone properly readjusted for the TV cameras, and his hair was less obtrusive than usual, less bulbous, leaving his long, lean face looking razor-sharp. He often laughed when Bush was speaking, which was just one of a number of things that made him seem well-rested and completely up for the debate. His voice sounded better than usual, crisper in a way that makes me less likely to write "intoned" or "oratorical" and words like that.

I think the time restrictions helped Kerry a lot, even if he's the one who didn't like them. And those three little lights on the front of the lectern helped too: you knew they would come on, and when the first one came on, your heart lifted, you knew he would stop, and that made it much less likely that you'd start thinking "When is he ever going to stop?"

(By the way, that lectern was awfully ugly. It's fine to use wood, but pick something other than oak, with its offensively loud grain pattern. And did the lectern need to be so bulky? The candidates looked like they were packed into big boxes. And speaking of the set: who picked out that garish old-fashioned eagle with the banner in its beak? Ridiculous patriotism kitsch! I wonder if the 32-page debate agreement provided that the eagle would face Kerry rather than Bush.)

Bush was different from his usual self in that he lacked much if any of the impishness and humor that he displays at campaign stops. He seemed irritated and annoyed, as I wrote last night, and others have written. Yet if he had displayed his usual light-hearted facial expressions, people would have accused him of smirking, of not taking a sober enough attitude toward the deadly serious matters of war and security. Chimp analogies would have been made. So even as Kerry seemed lighter than normal, Bush seemed heavier than normal. And he looked tired, as some have noted.

Why was Bush so much more tired than Kerry? Maybe because his regular job is far more taxing than Kerry's. How much effort does Kerry put in at his Senator post these days? Bush is and should be preoccupied with his duties as President, and if he looked too well-rested we might say he's just trotting around campaigning and not taking his role as President appropriately seriously. He let it show last night that he didn't like having to stop by and share the stage with the Senator, and he'll have to forfeit a few style points for that.

UPDATE: An emailer writes:
[Y]our comments about Bush seeming more tired and maybe having a harder job got me thinking about something else I'd read today: There was a pretty big assault on Samarra last night that probably was happening during the debate. Could that have been on Bush's mind? Could the reality of what he had probably authorized (that was happening right then) vs. the theater of the debate been weighing on him? Some wouldn't want to give him the credit, but personally I think that's silly. Anyway, it seems plausible. I kind of liked the anger and the passion he showed. Seemed more like the way a real person would behave - like how I would be if I was defending my family from something deadly and someone came along and told me I didn't know what I was doing.
ADDED: At some point, a President would have to cancel the debate. At some point a President shouldn't be out campaigning at all. But if the demands of office are invoked, the opponent will respond with predictable criticisms. The derisive phrase "Rose Garden strategy" will be deployed, and the strategy itself has a bad track record:
Jimmy Carter complained President Ford was using [a "Rose Garden strategy"] in 1976. That year, Ford basked in the glory of the White House, signing bills, making pronouncements, getting free publicity, while Carter had to fight for attention. Carter used the same Rose Garden tactic four years later; They both lost.

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