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    What do I have to do / To get the message through?

    I watched the debate with Atsushi yesterday (our time) while making lasagnes for today’s dinner party. That means I was able to stay calm because (1) the presence of my beloved has a mellowing effect and (2) I had a ready excuse to keep opening the sherry bottle. As I expected, I’m not persuaded that I should change my mind about voting for Bush.

    May I just say, though, to everyone who talks as if any of the debates so far has had a “clear winner”: Give it a rest. Unless one of the candidates actually freaks out and starts waving a switchblade on-stage, that sort of conclusion is absolute nonsense. If you need the psychological boost of thinking your man is on a tear, okay. If you need the different psychological boost of feeling secure in your convictions but acknowledging that the opposition is capable of scoring points, that’s also okay.

    But jeez. The same arch of eyebrow and rasp of voice can be interpreted as signaling “defensiveness” or “battle weariness overridden by rock-solid conviction,” depending on who you are and whether your stomach’s acting up. And the “coherence” of someone’s content, while it sounds like a more objective yardstick, really isn’t when the audience represents so many levels of familiarity with the party platforms. What does matter mightily is which clips the media will choose to play over and over on the news and yak shows between now and the election, and whether commentators will pre-label them examples of “defensiveness,” “combativeness,” or “coherence” for the viewers, but you can’t tell that from the original broadcasts themselves.

    People keep complaining that the debates are superficial–and they are–but to my mind, that’s only approaching the problem from one end. The candidates have truckloads of opportunities to deliver long, detailed explications of their policy proposals and to pick over those of the opposition. The debates involve narrating them, with posturing and gesturing and a Phil Donahue audience.

    One hesitates to say anything that might be construed, in the current cultural climate, as calling for more public vulgarity, but the problem with the existing debate format is that it’s too genteel. As Camille Paglia said about Bill Clinton’s first campaign, there are two television tests a US President has to pass to be effective: prepared ceremonial speeches, and off-the-cuff remarks to left-field questions from reporters. The debates are nearly useless because they’re carefully pitched to land in the prim nowheresville between the two.

    We’ve had plenty of chances to see and read planned statements of position. But I think the television media could have done a real service by showing viewers a compilation of each candidate’s responses to spontaneous questions, as they’ve developed over the last few months. After all, you can love or hate what television has done to politics, but you can’t deny it. Being the President means being on the world stage, on which it’s often necessary to be implacable and consistent and flexible and sympathetic, at turns or at the same time. Presenting oneself well for television is not more important than having effective measures for national security, or not overspending, or appealing to the best in the citizenry in the course of uniting it. But it matters a great deal, in a way that the debates are travestying just as surely as they’re travestying deep discussions of the issues. It affects whether Americans feel they can rally behind their leader, and it affects whether other countries we expect to be on our side in the WOT believe they’re not being cynically used.

    And before anyone brings this up: No, I wouldn’t trust the media to do an unbiased job of culling representative clips and soundbites to give the most accurate possible portrait of each candidate. If television journalists were only able to recognize that they’re as firmly a part of pop culture as Survivor, Madonna videos, and the Discovery Channel, they might learn to use the strengths of their own medium in ways that are genuinely illuminating, instead of pretending it is what it isn’t. But imagining it actually happening makes me giggle uncontrollably, and I haven’t had a sip of sherry for almost 24 hours.


    Whether John Howard’s successful bid for a fourth term as the Australian Prime Minister was a referendum on the economy or the war is sure to be nattered about over the next week (though if the American media could give short shrift to the Bali bombing a few years ago, it’s hard to imagine that this won’t be overshadowed as well, what with the debates and the elections in Afghanistan). One thing that can be said, though: Australians may not be enthusiastic about the WOT, but they’re clearly not against it sufficiently to put Howard out of office. Good on them.


    Also not likely to get much play in America: The fifth Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) was just held in Hanoi. As you might imagine when the states of the EU, China, and Singapore (among others) are involved, the meeting seemed to involve a lot of pledging to “take proactive steps” and “promote dialogue” about such issues as terrorism, WMDs, and the role of the UN in international disputes. Anyway, I only mention it because the Asian leaders seem to have been pleasantly surprised at the turnout from the Europeans. Interesting that America’s not the only power seen as not understanding the significance of Asia.

    6 Responses to “What do I have to do / To get the message through?”

    1. Kris says:

      I was a bit surprised by your post – while I have made up my mind for Kerry (don’t worry anyone – I’m ensconced in a desperately blue state, so it’s not like it matters much) I do try to keep my mind open while I watch the debates. And while I didn’t think Kerry did anything outstanding, I personally thought Bush’s rhetoric and plaintive whining came off poorly. Like when he was asked to admit three specific mistakes, and didn’t. I’m really not comfortable that we have a leader who is literally unwilling or unable to admit his mistakes. I think it’s dangerous, because I don’t think it’s just for show – I think he’s ‘resolute’ in the same way in private. I suppose that that’s just my own ethical bias though – just as others were unable to get past Clinton’s immense personal moral issues where they related to governance, I didn’t consider them a sign that he shouldn’t be leading the country.
      The whole point I was trying to get at before I wandered off here is that I think it’s too bad that you likely don’t have access to the Daily Show on Comedy Central (though, when I was watching CNN in Thailand a couple of years back I do recall they spliced in a 5-10 minute bit someplace for filler…). That show does a good job, I think, of exposing the messaging and spin that both parties try to put on things. You don’t necessarily have to agree or disagree with the message (though Stewart does have an admittedly liberal bias), but the show does allow consumers of mass media to gain some more perspective on what’s really being pumped into their feed.

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      Kris, we do get The Daily Show–I mean, I don’t know whether it actually runs daily at home, but we get a week-in-review version through CNNj. It’s funny you should mention it, because we actually watched it after dinner the other night. Atsushi has always liked it; in fact, he may like it more than I do, though, of course, he has to ask about cultural references sometimes.
      As far as the debates themselves go…well, Bush’s tone sounded like plaintive whining to you but not to other people. You noticed the details of the way he replied to the question about his mistakes, and others picked apart Kerry’s response to the question about federal funding for abortions. I don’t mean that there are no differences between the candidates, only that I haven’t found that the debates have helped to limn them much.
      I think maybe I’m just sensitive to this because I have to be conscious of it so much. My listening comprehension in Japanese isn’t perfect, and the body language here is very different from ours in the States, so I’m accustomed to watching politicians on TV and wondering whether I’ve got a good fix on where they’re coming from. I was actually going to write more in this post about why you can say foreign perceptions of Bush matter even if you don’t think we should make “Please the French” a criterion for setting policy, but it had already run long.

    3. Kris says:

      I think I must be cycling a week behind on these issues, but I’m facing election-fatigue of a similar kind to what you described about a week ago while watching the first debate. I just want this damn thing to be over. I don’t believe in my heart that either Kerry or Bush is a ‘bad man’, though I do think that they take very different approaches to issues, and have led very different lives to lead them to those approaches. And I definitely believe that one is better than the other, for the future.
      But either way, and every which way, I’m hoping for what both men are promising – a world where less stuff blows up.