Mr Nasty v. Mr Nice

Tom Shales

John McCain wore the more presidential tie - that much can be said for him - but Barack Obama displayed the more presidential temperament, or the kind of demeanor people presumably would want in a president, when the two candidates met at the University of Mississippi last night for their first debate of the campaign.

Both men seemed well equipped in terms of facts and figures - especially, as one would expect, dollar figures - and neither made an outrageous blunder, although McCain did misidentify the new president of Pakistan. More critically, he came across as condescending and even rude to his opponent, a bit of bad behaviour especially evident because Obama may have overdone the fair-minded bit in many of his remarks and answers.

Imperiously enough, McCain - who had threatened not to show up for the debate because of America's financial crisis - seemed determined to avoid even looking at Obama as the debate went on, although they did shake hands at the beginning and end. Many of McCain's answers were preceded with belittling references to Obama as if he were talking to a college freshman way out of his depth: "I'm afraid Senator Obama doesn't understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy," was one typical remark.

Obama supporters must have been displeased, then, to hear their candidate keep agreeing with McCain, a case perhaps of sportsmanlike conduct run amok. Doesn't Obama want to win?

On the matter of congressional earmarks and wasteful spending, Obama began one answer with, "Well, Senator McCain is absolutely right . . ." and later, on an issue related to the Iraq war: "Senator McCain is absolutely right . . ." etc., etc.

After all the nice-guy stuff from Obama, which may have reached self-defeating levels, it's perhaps not surprising that the most, perhaps only, electrifying moment of the debate was when he finally told McCain he was wrong - three times in quick and effective succession. This was during debate about the origins of the war in Iraq. "You were wrong" about saying the war would be quick and easy, Obama charged, his voice rising. "You were wrong" about finding weapons of mass destruction, he continued. And there was one more "you were wrong" for good measure.

Obama was showing something that his personal appearances have too often lacked: passion. There was strong conviction behind his words, whether one agreed with them or not, and a welcome assertiveness. "You were wrong" was an effectively simple declarative sentence, not bogged down in qualifiers the way some of his sentences tend to be. "We've got to look at bringing that war to a close," he said of Iraq; why not just, "We've got to end that war"?

Although Obama was "crisper" than usual, as one commentator noted after the debate, he still may not have been crisp enough. His oratorical skills when giving speeches in vast venues have been amply demonstrated. But in debates and conversations, when he ad-libs, he sometimes seems to be weighing his answers almost too carefully, defusing his own remarks by diffusing them.

Democrat Paul Begala, one of CNN's army of pundits, criticised both candidates for the way they handled questions on the economy. The whole debate was supposed to deal with foreign policy, but as the economy shuddered and crumbled during the week, it was wisely decided to devote about a third of the debate to that crisis. But as Begala said, a stranger to this planet tuning in the debate wouldn't have known from the candidates' answers and attitudes that America is in the midst of what has been called the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression

Instead their answers were on the theoretical side, with no real sense of urgency. The folks out there in television land, losing their homes to foreclosure or seeing their retirement nest eggs obliterated, deserved more thoughtful and heartfelt answers.

The debate was moderated by public television's Jim Lehrer, who did a very accomplished job, willing to interrupt or challenge the candidates when they danced around an issue rather than addressing it. His first question was: "Where do you stand on the financial recovery plan" now being debated in Washington. Both candidates merely reiterated economic policies from past speeches, with McCain preceding his response with a self-serving salute to Ted Kennedy, who was hospitalised earlier in the day.

Obama began his response with the usual bromide about America being "at a defining moment in our history." Yes, yes, but how will we pay the mortgage when the interest rate goes up for the umpteenth time next month?

Lehrer took control. After the meandering palaver from the two men he said pointedly, "Let's go back to my question" and repeated it.

Since all three networks had access to the same basic pool video, some networks tried to dress up the picture with identifying decoration. NBC and CNN both had annoying animated graphics in the lower right-hand corners of the screen, just the thing for people who want to watch letters dance or globes spin around, distracting to everyone else. CNN had mercifully ditched its ticker-tape of fun facts, but replaced it with a chart that supposedly showed reactions from a sample group to the candidates' performances. The chart was hard to read and essentially useless.

CBS armed a test group of viewer-voters with "joy sticks" to measure their responses to various moments of the debate, but this gimmick also proved to be of little help. A CBS reporter interviewed one man sitting in the room; the man said he thought McCain looked "stressed." And that was that. The research measurement was done by Nielsen Media Research, it was pointed out, the same people who rate television shows. That raised the discomforting spectre of equating presidential candidates with sitcoms, soap operas and reality junk.

This was reality - the realest kind of reality - and the debate was, for the most part, encouragingly civilised and not flawed with frivolous name-calling. As NBC's able Chuck Todd put it, "no lipstick on a pig" nonsense. If McCain had been more civil, and Obama were more combative and fervent, it would have been better still.