“Hey John — my eyes are up here.”
In the aftermath of the debate, John McCain’s refusal to look directly at Barack Obama is garnering a good deal of attention from pundits and bloggers. My expectation is that this will be something late-night comedy shows pick up and run with, but right now that remains to be seen.
But it is certainly the kind of thing SNL, Leno, Letterman, et al. can latch onto. Moreover, it is the sort of thing comedy can do a lot to amplify, and make consequential. For example, even people who didn’t watch any of the Bush vs. Gore debates knew about Gore’s audible sighs, at least in part because SNL made fun of them. Topical comedy — especially the mainstream, “equal-opportunity offender” sort we see on network TV — always prefers dealing with the silly, the trivial, and the personal over the serious and the substantive. It’s easier to mock, it’s more accessible to people who don’t necessarily follow politics that closely, and it’s relatively uncontroversial, because it doesn’t touch on issues or ideologies. Unfortunately, “journalists” like these sorts of stories for the same reasons.
For those of us who care about the substance of political issues, this is generally infuriating. Why so much attention to flag pins, sighing, and body language — don’t these people care that there’s a war on, and a depression lurking around the next corner? But it’s more complicated than that: not all trivialities are equally trivial.
We may fault the media — including the comedic media (comedia?) — for devoting much more attention to personalities than to issues; but the question of “character” is hardly irrelevant to a presidential campaign. That said, there are two questions to consider in trying to evaluate whether such lines of attack are worthy or not.
First, does the “symptom” noted by the various observers (a sigh, a look, a choice of words) support the diagnosis they say it does (he’s an elitist, she’s aloof, he’s reckless)? In 2000, Al Gore was dubbed a “serial exaggerator” based on a deliberate mis-characterization of what he said about his legislative role in the creation of the Internet. This set off a sort of chain reaction, in which nearly everything he said was examined for further evidence of this supposed tendency to exaggerate. I’ve written about this in some detail in my book, but most of the facts can also be found here.
Second, is the character characteristic supposedly revealed by whatever tic, or shrug, or off-hand comment the commentators pick up on really relevant to how the candidate might perform in office? If the characterization of Gore as a “serial exaggerator” had been justified, voters’ concern would have been, too. I disagree with the idea that honesty is in every instance the best policy, or the best politics (FDR, “Honest Abe” Lincoln, and even George Washington were devious, if not outright dishonest, when they felt the success of their policies and the good of the country depended upon it — the Emancipation Proclamation is a prime example of lawyerly hair-splitting and cold calculation). But a basic sense of honesty (and for that matter, humility) is something we ought to demand from our chief executive.
This is why this slanderous line of attack on Gore — born in oppo research, nurtured by the news media, and made into conventional wisdom with a lot of help from comedians — was so devastating: if it were true, it would have truly mattered.
But other characterizations are both unfair and irrelevant. George H. W. Bush was dogged and disturbed by being labeled a “wimp.” Though there may have been some legitimate basis for accusing him of political cowardice (though I’m not convinced he was exceptionally craven in that sense), the “wimp” label was in large part a personal slur, based on Bush’s patrician manner, his somewhat prissy voice, and his habit of using words and phrases like “finis!” and “deep doo-doo.” It’s hard not to make fun of such things, of course, but to over-interpret them, as some did (the cartoonist Pat Oliphant always drew Bush carrying a purse) was more than a little unfair. After all, Bush was a WWII vet, with a combat record as honorable as John McCain’s, or JFK’s, or (to cite another “effete” soldier) John Kerry’s.
And even if he was a “sissy,” in some superficial respect, so what? Machismo is very overrated as a leadership quality. I would like to think this country will one day elect a female president; and that someday, the country will progress to a point where it would be possible to elect a gay president (openly gay, that is — helloooo, James Buchanan!). The worst consequence of the mis-characterization of Bush is that he over-compensated for it, expending all kinds of energy on trying to convince us that he loved pork rinds and country music, and adopting a belligerent tone in his conduct of foreign policy that his son has gone out of his way to top.
With these cautionary examples in mind, is it legitimate to read anything into McCain’s refusal to make eye contact with his opponent? My gut feeling is, yes — but I already had a very low opinion of McCain’s character, as readers of this blog have no doubt discovered. Maybe a more objective way to evaluate it is to ask whether it tends to confirm something about McCain for which we already have some evidence. Based on his tendency to treat his opponents as enemies, and his well-documented difficulty controlling his temper, I’d say yes, again.
Regardless of the fairness and relevance of this behavioral tic, it will be interesting to see whether and to what extent comedians pick up on it.