When was the last time any candidate for election could gamble his or her career on the large dollop of unadorned substance that the likes of David Gergen and Lou Dobbs urge them to offer up to the panting public?
Will tomorrow night’s debate be nasty or nice? The GOP base wants a bar fight, with smashed chairs and broken bottles, and there are Democrats who wouldn't mind one either. To draw blood, America turns its lonely eyes to the last-chance saloon provocations of…Bob Schieffer. There has been much complaining among columnists and pointy heads that the last three debates have been content-free when it comes to telling Americans how, specifically, the candidates will wrestle with the financial crisis. And yet it’s also one of the accepted traditions of contemporary politics that we all know these pundits must be kidding.
No one really understands what's going on right now. The best we can hope for in a president is the political version of Tony Robbins to get us up off the floor.
Presidential debates are theater and have been ever since TV took over the national cortex. Nixon had a five o’clock shadow and no makeup, and Kennedy had a sailboat tan, so Kennedy won. But because people who listened to their debate on the radio thought Nixon won, the myth has grown up that Nixon was better on substance. No he wasn’t. It’s just that Nixon’s voice was more mellifluous than Kennedy's nasal Boston twang. Before TV, the most popular shows on radio were…soap operas. Or maybe the best way to judge the debate is to do as I’m told Bill Clinton advises. Which is to keep the picture on but turn off the sound and see who looks more presidential—not a bad idea if nobody’s saying anything anyway. Panelists on the cable shows after the last debate (back when the world was on fire) were still pretending there were meaningful clues to be read into McCain’s crusty gag “ Not you, Tom” when Brokaw asked who the candidates might appoint as Secretary of the Treasury. Or endlessly parsing out the subtext of “ that one.” When was the last time any candidate for election could gamble his or her career on the large dollop of unadorned substance that the likes of David Gergen and Lou Dobbs urge them to offer up to the panting public? Warren Beatty in Bulworth was the last one to do that. The critics loved it—but the movie bombed with the public. Kind of like Adlai Stevenson. Some Democrats still haunted by Hillary Clinton’s Rasputin-like refusal to die in the primary campaign obsess about Obama’s now diminishing trouble with closing the deal. They think he’s got to use a high-pressure firehose to wash away the slime the McCain campaign has been spreading around. And McCain’s backers are mad as hell he bear-hugged Obama on the first dopey bail-out when he’d be home free now if he’d opposed it. Maybe. McCain did miss his shot, but some of Obama’s supreme self-confidence stems from the fact that he’s lucky. Lucky that when the Rev. Wright story broke it was right before the North Carolina primary where the electorate was 34 percent black and the attacks about Wright only rallied African-Americans more to his side. Lucky that John Edwards wasn’t outed as a skanky philanderer in time to help Hillary romance his voters. Lucky that just when things were beginning to go John McCain’s way the economy didn’t just tank, it exploded with nuclear intensity and produced a scene of financial panic worthy of the End of Days. Obama is lucky even with the small bundle of questionable moments in his life story, because they are mostly too complicated for the public to understand. The Rezko deal, more boring even than Whitewater. The Ayers affair—some old hippie who used to call for offing Mayor Daley’s pigs and now gets new Mayor Daley’s Chicagoan of the Year awards. How confusing is that? ACORN—wha? No acronym except CREEP has ever had legs as a scandal, and that was because the name was so gloriously appropriate. The only reason that the Rev. Wright caught fire was because of the inflammatory video clips of him ranting from the pulpit. The lesson of this election: without the video link no story can bury you. The press didn’t seriously pick up on Hillary Clinton’s exaggeration of the danger she had been in when she landed in Bosnia until TV clips surfaced showing her bending down to greet a little girl on the tarmac. And her single most redeeming moment was the clip when she teared up under the stress of trying not to. Obama, who is a player in the iPhone age, understands all this and has lowered his temperature to cool down the incinerating heat of YouTube loops and cable commentary. That’s why he’s not going to fall into the trap of providing a testy or hyper-combative moment to feed the flames. His best bet is to ignore the temptation to lay McCain out by seeming to be calmly driving the Corvette of State on cruise control with one elbow resting out the window. He wants to give the impression he’ll soon be trading it in for a Presidential limo, hence his five times recital in the last debate of the line “when I’m president.” At the close of this debate he needs to stop enumerating all the promises that will have to be broken and give one of those soaring motivational speeches he's been told by the commentariat are too lacking in substance. Whatever anyone else pretends, no one really understands what’s going on right now. The best we can hope for in a president is the political version of Tony Robbins to get America up off the floor. Obama, if his luck holds, can go back to what he does best: inspiration.