As Obama and McCain went toe-to-toe in Nashville, you couldn’t help but think we’ve come a long way to get to a place this dull.There is a book about the nineteenth century gold rush in California called The World Rushed In, and that title could describe what has happened in American media and show business over the length of this campaign. It was proven once more in last night's either dull or low-keyed presidential debate. I cannot tell you that I thought Barack Obama or John McCain won because throughout most of the debate I was waiting for either of them to release the kind of rhetorical tiger whose claws were so sharp that a terrible swipe would draw blood from the air itself. No such moment arrived, and some will chalk it up to the way in which show business has successfully traveled behind the lines of politics, convincing candidates that they should use the special effects of presentation because the American people are more interested in performance and identification than they are content. Last night, both men seemed to have thought out how he would present himself first and what he would say second.
Both men’s performance demands were largely met and each seemed to stand invisibly in his own corner, sending himself out with instructions on how to win the next round of questions. It was not that the gloves did not come off. It was as though they had never been put on.
Obama has been warned that he must never seem too arrogant, too complex, too thoughtful or he will be seen as uppity or too professorial—elite!—by white voters. Perhaps most of all he had to leave his eloquence at home, speak straight and simply to the American people or risk being dismissed as a callow motivational speaker. McCain has been told over and over not to lose his temper or seem in need of anger management classes. Both men’s performance demands were largely met and each seemed to stand invisibly in his own corner, sending himself out with instructions on how to win the next round of questions. It was not that the gloves did not come off. It was as though they had never been put on. Yet it still seemed as though we have, as they say, "come a long way." We are no longer as decoyed by skin tone as we once were. The sort of man that Obama is has become normal to all but the yahoos among us. So everything seemed normal for this guy from Chicago by way of Hawaii to be debating and running for president. That shows what constant presence in our media can do and how other effects add up. When we first heard Obama's name either in 2004 or over the last year and a half, he sounded exotic to most, regardless of color or religion. But the way had been prepared by people like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, each of whom has maintained his or her public gravitas with commanding ease and intelligence, both seeming much more prepared to run on the bottom half of a ticket than Governor Sarah Central Casting from Mooseland. Both sides say they won, which is to be expected. It seems to me that we have become accustomed to many things that may lead us out of the morass of our moment because, for sincere reasons or for manipulation, we are now beginning to assume that good or bad leadership can come from anywhere in our populace, which is both the glory and the tragedy of our democracy.