I didn't watch the first presidential debate last night. I listened to it on the radio. And while I thought Barrack Obama won on points, John McCain came through as a reassuring elder statesman--a man who could soothe the public in spite of policies that promise to turn the current recession into a depression. (You don't slash government spending during a recession. By throwing more and more people out of work, such drastic cuts can cause a snowball effect. You don't tax employer-provided health insurance unless you want take away health benefits for hundreds of thousands of Americans.)
But Kathleen watched the debate. McCain, she said, came off as an "angry old man." The latest polls seem to bear this out, with Obama perceived as the winner by a skight margin.
It reminds me of another presidential debate, exactly 48 years before yesterday's debate, between Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John Kennedy. I was eight years old in 1960, so I don't have clear memories of it at the time. But I've seen and heard recordings of the debates.
In the first debate, held September 26, 1960, most listeners perceived Nixon as the winner, while Kennedy was the clear victor with television viewers. Here's a summary from the Museum of Broadcast Communication:
... In August, Nixon had seriously injured his knee and spent two weeks in the hospital. By the time of the first debate he was still twenty pounds underweight, his pallor still poor. He arrived at the debate in an ill-fitting shirt, and refused make-up to improve his color and lighten his perpetual "5:00 o'clock shadow." Kennedy, by contrast, had spent early September campaigning in California. He was tan and confident and well-rested. "I had never seen him looking so fit," Nixon later wrote.
In substance, the candidates were much more evenly matched. Indeed, those who heard the first debate on the radio pronounced Nixon the winner. But the 70 million who watched television saw a candidate still sickly and obviously discomforted by Kennedy's smooth delivery and charisma. Those television viewers focused on what they saw, not what they heard. Studies of the audience indicated that, among television viewers, Kennedy was perceived the winner of the first debate by a very large margin.
I wish Obama had sounded less professorial ("He was a professor," Kathleen reminded me.) and McCain less reassuring. But if McCain came off as an angry old man on the small screen, he may just be 1960 Nixon Redux.