Geoffrey Nunberg: So Did We Learn Who Bush and Kerry Really Are from the Debates?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Geoffrey Nunberg, in Newsday (Oct. 17, 2004):

[Geoffrey Nunberg is the author of "Going Nucular: Language, Politics and Culture in Controversial Times" and a Stanford University linguist.]

The televison commentaries on this year's presidential debates have continued a grand tradition of sporting metaphors that runs back to the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960. "It's Sammy Sosa versus Pedro Martinez." "Nobody hit a home run." "Kerry's got to "cut the ring off and make him fight." "It's only the third quarter." "Sweep!"

But the sporting event that the debates most closely resemble is probably Olympic figure skating - a quadrennial competition that nobody is quite sure how to score unless one of the competitors actually falls down. And when the public does make up its mind about the outcome a few days later, nobody's sure what the judging criteria were, apart from that vague business of who managed to "look presidential," a phrase that came up 244 times in the press stories on the debates indexed on Google News over the past few weeks.

It's no accident that this phrase first became common in the 1970s, when the televised debate was permanently revived after a 16-year lull and the networks first began broadcasting post-debate commentary and spin. "Looking presidential" is like "artistic merit" in figure skating - an imponderable that nobody feels obliged to pin down.

We come to the debates with the knowing cynicism that we bring to the other televised rituals of American political life, like the conventions and the State of the Union speech, attuned to the play of appearances. The commentators dissect every twitch and frown for the impact it might have had on the ordinary folks who will be sloshing it around the next day "at the water-coolers," a nod to the fiction that the pundits themselves play no role in shaping the public reactions.

When a candidate makes a good showing, partisans for the other side are quick to dismiss him as "glib" or "a skillful debater," implying that television makes it easy to manipulate appearances. And if the viewers don't find that condescending, it's because they think of themselves as in on the game.

Critics have always grumbled that the formats turn the confrontations into beauty contests rather than what they call "real debates." Shortly after the Nixon-Kennedy debates, the historian Henry Steele Commager wrote that the televised debate privileges "the glib, the evasive, the dogmatic, the melodramatic" at the expense of "the sincere, the judicious, the sober, the honest." And on PBS recently, presidential historian Michael Beschloss suggested that the ideal forum would be a series of 10 or 12 debates where the candidates could go into each issue in depth.

But it's unlikely that this year's debates left viewers with an appetite for tuning in to seven more, whatever the format, or whether even a whole season of debates would have left viewers with a clearer position on whether we should include China in the negotiations with North Korea.

In fact the debates rarely make for compelling entertainment, whatever you might conclude if you went only by the montages of highlight clips that the networks run as promos for their coverage.

Even the first Nixon-Kennedy debate, which we like to remember as a moment of high drama in American politics, was described the following day in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a "stiff and formalized occasion." The Herald-Tribune complained about "pools of platitudes." And in an early foray into sports metaphor, the Buffalo Evening News described the debate as "a cautious sparring between overtrained experts, each very chary of getting within haymaker range of his opponent and each scoring a few light jabs."

This year's debates, too, fell far short of anything you'd be tempted to describe as "gripping" - particularly the last one, where Bob Schieffer had trouble coming up with questions that forced the candidates to depart from their packaged spiels. ("What part does your faith play on your policy decisions?")

Yet however cynical we are about the process, the debates we have do enable voters to take some measure of the candidates. As Northeastern University's Alan Schroeder noted in his history of the presidential debates, "no matter how the deck has been stacked, little arrows of verisimilitude manage to shoot out of the screen."...

It's pointless to ask whether any of that gave voters an insight into the "real John Kerry" or the "real George W. Bush" - it's like asking whether we know the "real Dave Letterman." ("Be yourself," my freshman English instructor once wrote on a composition I'd handed in. "If this is you, be someone else.")

But most of us came away from the debates feeling that the candidates hadn't been able to wholly manipulate the impression we took away with us. After all, we're at least as skillful at watching talk shows as they are at appearing on them.

comments powered by Disqus