Friday, September 26, 2008

Clash of Styles: Pre-Debate Thoughts


Black-jowled, swaggering, snarling, fighting against age and an overwhelming weariness, Old Burleigh Grimes took fame by the throat today and claimed her for his own.
This overwrought passage by sports-writing legend Red Smith describes the1931 St. Louis Cardinals World Series victory over the Philadelphia Athletics. But somehow I keep inserting the name John McCain. His career was made when, under duress, he was stripped down – past rank, background, and personality – to raw character. This is his stock-in-trade. He presents himself without nuance as unpackaged and raw. The Presidency is hell, but someone has got to do it and – as a man who has already been there and back – he is the man we can trust to take this on this awesome responsibility. He will make the tough calls, no matter

McCain is formidable in small groups and will be a skilled debater. But he is a lousy speaker. Despite a career in politics, he still struggles with the teleprompter. His speeches are free of artifice and come off as unvarnished truth and this, perhaps, is the greatest artifice of all.


Biden was pilloried for calling Obama “clean” because it carried the implication that for an African-American to be hygienic was somehow remarkable. But I think I know what Biden was trying to say. Obama is clean the way DiMaggio at the plate or Willie Mays patrolling centerfield was clean. Their motions were stripped of the herky-jerky of regular life, and focused and suited to the purpose at hand. DiMaggio’s swing was elegant, a word which can mean both simple and refined. Another word might be neat or graceful or clean.

Obama walked, with no apparent effort, into the national scene and to the nomination. Where Bill Clinton could read a grocery list and have such a good time that the listener enjoyed it too. From Obama’s lips the grocery list would be somehow uplifting.

The speed of Obama’s rise and the ease of his eloquence are deceptive. Willie Mays worked hard to control centerfield, his natural talent and grace only making it appear easy. Obama too has a hard core of real stuff to him.

What We Want

Do we truly expect to learn anything about their policies from this debate? Most people who follow politics even casually have a pretty good idea what each party seeks to do and what it believes in.

We also don’t really know what makes for an effective President. In some ways, the most we can do is try to eliminate the people who are not up to the job. The multi-year obstacle course we force our Presidential aspirants to traverse is an attempt to do this. I once heard boxing described as “running a marathon, doing trigonometry, and playing chess all at the same time.” Cubing that description perhaps gives a sense of what it takes to run for President.

The debate is just another obstacle. Part of it is stamina. Can the candidate stand their, head to head with their opponent, with the world watching, and not get flustered. Because if they can’t they aren’t up to the job. And then, with all that pressure, what do we see. Do the candidates show a flare of temper or condescension, a telling stumble, or a flash of wit or graciousness?

It is, in so many ways, an awful system. But I remember Churchill’s aphorism, “Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others.”

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