Press Box

This “Town Hall” Debate Is Neither

It’s more a dance recital than an honest head-to-head between the candidates.

Debater Bill Clinton poses for the camera

This “town hall” debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in Nashville on Oct. 7 is neither.

In a genuine town-hall discussion, anybody can ask a real, unvetted question to inject sonic chaos into the proceedings. The crazy questions, the impolite questions, and even the left-field questions about such things as the price of a gallon of milk push candidates out of their comfort zones, away from their talking points, and to some uncultivated acre of their psyches where voters can observe their thinking processes. In the Nashville, Tenn., session, we’ll see almost none of that.

Likewise, an authentic debate demands more rigor from its participants than the Q and As the Commission on Presidential Debates like to stage. In our presidential “debates,” candidates decant their two-minute sound bites, dodge the tough questions, and tell the best lies they can get away with. But real debaters observe rules of logic and persuasion. They stick to the topic, they answer the questions, and they talk to one another.

So, as Obama and McCain take the stage in Nashville, fielding questions and giving answers, don’t expect much in the way of substance. Instead, pay attention to what Mark Goodman, Mark Gring, and Brian Anderson call “visual bytes”—those TV-friendly actions “that convey a meaning or value.”

In a recent paper, the authors portray Bill Clinton as the living genius of the town-hall format. In 1992, the first year the presidential finalists used the format, George H.W. Bush’s forces “simply practiced verbal arguments and rebuttals” prior to the appearance. But Clinton’s people capitalized on the rules that allowed the “debaters” to move about some. According to Goodman, Gring, and Anderson, they “laid out a grid, complete with fake cameras and doubles for his opponents and the audience, to train their candidate to utilize space effectively.”

They continue:

Americans were thus introduced to a new variety of political persuasion. By positioning himself on the stage in relation with the background, to his debate opponents, and to the live audience, candidate Bill Clinton encoded the television image in a manner not seen in traditional moderator or panel debates. He literally carried on a commentary through movements combined with expressions, reinforcing his own oration and “invading” the discourse of others.

They cite another academic—Alan Schroeder—who discovered that Clinton “choreographed his moves so as to keep one or the other of his competitors in the camera shot at all times, a maneuver that circumvented the prohibition on cutaways of one candidate while another was speaking.”

Clinton’s debate dancing paid off, the authors assert, because as attention flags during a verbal event, audiences become more susceptible to “non-verbal debate.” The dramatic effect at the 1992 town-hall debate was as if Clinton had practiced his complete performance in rehearsals of a play while his opponents, Bush and Ross Perot, were reading the scripts for the first time.

The authors adorn their paper with charts and screenshots to document Clinton’s skill at maneuvering into the frame while opponents talked. He had four distinct on-camera responses during those silent moments—”the smirk, attentive listening, challenging body language, and unaware of being on camera.” Sometimes he mixed those reactions for effect. He excelled at positioning himself to collect flattering camera angles, especially the “aesthetically pleasing just off-the-nose shot typically used in shooting television news.” In the 1996 town-hall debate, Clinton used similar tricks. He played to the camera, offering it his emotive eyes as he spoke, while opponent Bob Dole spoke directly to the debate audience, giving the camera an unbecoming view of the side of his head.

To appreciate how good Clinton was at this sort of political theater, you need only recall how bad Al Gore was at it in the 2000 town haller that matched him against George W. Bush. Here’s the play-by-play from the Oct. 18, 2000, by the Washington Post’s David Von Drehle:

The bigger man never looked so big as he did inside the debate hall tonight. Vice President Al Gore has a couple of inches and a couple of pounds on Texas Gov. George W. Bush—but it might as well have been feet and tons. With his bold strides around the room, with his large gestures and his booming voice, and especially with his aggressive attempts to pin Bush to the mat on one painful issue after another, Gore seemed to fill 90 percent of the space.

Gore’s scenery-chewing proved to be too much. At one junction, as Bush answered a question, “Gore moved from his stool toward the governor,” drawing closer and closer “until he loomed like a shadow at the climax of a film noir,” Von Drehle writes.

Expect John McCain to continue to distance himself from Barack Obama during the Nashville recital, avoiding his opponent’s eyes and reducing the opening handshake to the briefest of touches—just as he did in the Oxford, Miss., debate. Physical disassociation is McCain’s way of saying that not only is Obama not ready to lead, he’s not ready to share the same stage.

McCain’s age and war injures, which make him look vulnerable, will put him at a disadvantage in the Nashville setting. McCain makes a step look like a lurch, a smile look like a grimace. Any attempt to ape Clinton by entering Obama’s space for political effect will only make McCain look doddering. But if he simply stands there, the supple, feline Obama will upstage him with his vitality, even when standing still.

A robot just can’t dance with a cat.


I’d like to put in good words for “gotchas” and the need for “filters.” Without them, the campaign will be a series of platitudinous, mendacious speeches. Send your good words to (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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