Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Debate Mania

I was out of the country on the day of the Vice Presidential Debate and so didn't actually see it - although I've heard and read plenty about it since! (I just didn't consider it worth sacrificing an already fitful night's sleep to try to watch it at 3 a.m. Rome time!) I did, of course, watch the disastrous first debate, a presidential performance Andrew Sullivan has famously denounced as "so execrable, so lazy, so feckless, and so vain." Sullivan's hyperbole strikes me as accurate. But such hyperbole only raises the real question: why does it matter so much?
Of course, ever since 1960, when JFK "won" his first debate with Richard Nixon because he looked better on TV (an interpretation confirmed by the fact that those who listed on radio thought that Nixon had "won" the debate), these presidential debates have been basically  about showmanship. Had either the President or the moderator called Romney on his slick re-invention of himself in the last debate, he might not after all have emerged as the "winner" with "momentum," but there can be no doubt whatever that he looked and acted "presidential" and deservedly won the first debate's stature contest. But, again, given that the campaign has been going on - it seems like - forever, why should any one-time event make such a difference?
Alec MacGillis has diagnosed the debate-mania malady in today's New Republic online. "Twitter has given political reporters all the more reason to exalt the debates as the highest test of aptitude. After all, isn't exchanging succinct points and parries how we now spend so much of our time, rather than being out talking to people in Dayton or digging into tax proposals or campaign finance rackets? The debates have become the Platonic ideal of campaigning for a glibly cynical couch-potato press: Just sit back and watch, laptop on the lap, iPhone and remote in hand, facile witticisms on the brain."
30+ years ago, when I was teaching political science at a midwestern university, one of my colleagues frustratingly described me and another colleague as having learned as part of our Ivy-League graduate education to substitute "witty apercus" for substance. What would he (rightly) say about the way the media covers the process by which the most powerful person in the world is elected?
Of course, I too will be in front of my TV tonight for the second debate!

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