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Presidential post-debate: Focusing on Obama’s mis-demeanor

I’m not sure I heard any pundit dwell on the words that came out Obama’s mouth.

Mitt Romney answering a question as President Obama listens during the first presidential debate on Wednesday.
REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

“Civics teachers won’t want to hear this, but the easiest way to judge ‘victory’ in many debates is to watch with the sound turned off, so you can assess the candidates’ ease, tenseness, humor, and other traits signaled by their body language.”

James Fallows, the great Atlantic magazine writer, wrote the paragraph above in a piece for the September issue of the magazine. When I read it a month ago, I hated it. I still hate it, but now I get it much better. Apparently, Fallows was right.

The commentariat has declared last night’s debate a win for Mitt Romney, and not by a little bit. I watched the debate and the post-debate commentary on CNN and Fox. The Fox crew was, predictably, agog but not just the righties. Their designated liberal for the first round of reaction – Joe Trippi, formerly the genius behind Howard Dean’s 2004 front-runnerhood – definitely was on board with the triumphant-Romney meme.

On CNN, David Gergen immediately declared that the horserace, which he had previously thought was almost over, was back on. James Carville, who would have strangled anyone who made a similar analysis of one of his clients, announced that President Obama looked all night like he wanted to be somewhere else. This was the key.

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No one had anything from the transcript to back up the analysis. It was all in (this is one of the leading new buzzwords of the year) the “optics.” When Obama was speaking, the other camera showed Romney with his head up, an affable expression, looking engaged. When Romney spoke, Obama seemed pained, grumpy, often looked down. (Actually, I don’t know how often Obama looked down, but he did it at least once and that moment – Romney selling, Obama downcast – had already been located and was being shown multiple times whenever the big analysis point was repeated.)

I’m not sure I heard anyone dwell on any of the words that came out Obama’s mouth, it was all about his demeanor, or mis-demeanor.

CNN also conducted a snap poll of 430 registered voters who watched the debate. By 67-25 percent, the snap-pollees said Romney had won the debate. So it’s official.

The two candidates, by the way, actually did utter some words and attempted to explain their policy differences, although neither of them said much new (why should they?) and none of it seemed to register. The promised “zingers” were not much in evidence. (I guess that when Romney compared Obama to his sons who would just keep saying the same wrong thing over and over, hoping to convince him by repetition, that was a set piece. But it didn’t particularly work.) Mostly, whoever told Romney to keep his head up when Obama was speaking is the genius, and whoever forgot to tell Obama the same is the goat.

I’m reminded of the famous fact that in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate, the TV audience thought JFK had won and the radio audience thought Richard Nixon had won. The poor radio dopes didn’t realize that JFK was handsomer and tanner and that Nixon had a poor makeup job and a sweaty upper lip.

I’m also reminded of a passage from “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (a book about how television changed us, by the late, great Neil Postman). In the first hotly contested presidential elections, between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the vast majority of the electorate had to decide between the two candidates without ever having seen either of them, heard their voices nor even seen an image of them. The poor slobs were reduced to having to decide whom to support based on what they had read about the men, their lives and their policy differences.