presidential-debate-92708.jpgThe candidate debate was everywhere last night. I watched it on CBS because they provide the clearest HD transmission in my area. I was informed by some people who met McCain that he looks much older in person than he does on TV and that they figured that when he appeared on the same stage as Obama this age disparity would have the same audience effects that the now-historical but still famous reference point of the Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960 where Nixon, ill-counseled by his make-up people, looked old, tired, like a Herblock cartoon of a "suspicious character" given Nixon's perpetual, heavy 5 o'clock shadow.

As some of you may know, read about, or have witnessed this debate, Kennedy looked young, handsome, vital, while Nixon looked Nixon on a bad skin, eye, jowl day. At the time, Kennedy was only 4 years younger than Nixon but he looked a decade younger. Polls of people who listened on the radio or watched on TV found that radio listeners gave Nixon the edge while TV watchers gave Kennedy the edge. The results of these "media-specific exit polls" changed forever how candidates would appear. Makeup and telegenic grooming became the order of the day for all politicians appearing on TV, especially when making formal or pre-arranged speeches (as compared with, for example, being briefly interviewed on camera while scooting from one meeting to another on Capitol Hill). Some older actors and performers I knew in Hollywood were less discriminating. Whenever they left the house they put on makeup. Little Richard and Kirk Douglas were of that ilk. "Not that there's anything wrong with that." Hell, I dye my beard-the goatee part --and perform other cosmetic rituals on my hair. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.

But back to Obama-McCain. In my humble opinion, McCain did not look any older in HD than he does on LD (low definition) TV. I expected a prune and witnessed someone a little more plumy. McCain actually looked pretty good for a 72 year old. So, the debate focused more on what they said (substance, but no new substance) than how the candidates looked. I doubt that too many people were listening to the debate on radio-at least not in the U.S. - so, no Kennedy-Nixon comparisons are likely.

A couple of other physical points: The camera arrangements were such that there was only a few brief moments when they stood next to each other; before the debate actually started and after they debate was over. This is not unimportant because Obama is very much taller than McCain and, stats tell us, taller candidates generally beat shorter candidates. The only recent exception to that was when Bush 43 (Dubya) beat Al Gore and maybe the height discrepancy score card was why Gore walked over to Bush during one of the debates and looked "down" on him while Bush was responding to a question and Gore had no obvious reason for going over to Bush. It was one of the weird moments in presidential debates. According to post-debate pundit quips and audience reactions, that "stage walk" and Gore's stiff-bodied sighs throughout that debate as Bush was replying to questions from panelists, evidently hurt Gore and may have helped GWB win the very close 2000 election (with of course, the help of the Supreme Court--you didn't think I was going to leave that out, did you?).

Obama also looked more relaxed, presidential, in control...but not without some initial stage nervousness. McCain looked nervous over the course of the debate, even when he was making strong points about his position or about Obama's inexperience, and flashed his Charlie Chaplain smarmy smirk throughout the debate in order to communicate his disrespect for what Obama was saying, had said, or was trying to say, or for Obama's voting record. It's a nervous little smile, not the wide, Presidential smile that Obama repeatedly flashed (oh my God, how can I be so unabashedly biased!?) In other words, McCain was intent on "dissin' " Obama at every opportunity. Obama was rather significantly more respectful. Whether the red meat and the "elite" viewers appreciated this difference is unknown to me at this point. But the low-road, high-road strategy has worked very well, I fear, for McCain and his Rovian advisers to this point, and has frustrated many of Obama's supporters who want a little less watercress and a little more chopped steak on their candidate's campaign style menu.

Who won the night? Don't know. And I didn't wait to hear the spin doctors Greek and Hallelujah choruses in the debate's aftermath; so very, very surreal. McCain's only popping misstep, so far as I can tell, was saying that he wanted to cut federal subsidies for ethanol. He may want to but it's not a good idea to say so in a nationally televised debate unless you can make sure that you can execute a power outage for the entire mid-West at that exact moment. As for Obama, I only know that I would have liked him to be less stiff, relaxed enough to make his points with a looser flourish, and to have dropped in a few jokes every now and then.

Something else: If Obama had remembered that McCain's Saint Patraeus had said that you couldn't really use the term victory when it comes to Iraq, it would have helped him since McCain threw the surge and victory words around like confetti and seemed to want us all to pray at the alter of his friend, the General of Surge. But, Obama didn't and more's the pity. Maybe next time. As for now, we must wait for the event of the debate season - Sister Sarah vs. Sir Joseph of Biden. Could be a hoot...or a horror.

About the Author

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D.

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., was Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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