Monday, September 29, 2008

"The average South Korean is three inches taller" and other thoughts on Friday's debate

I wasn’t able to see all of Friday’s presidential debate live, and the 40 minutes I did see of it on Friday was with the sound off and the closed-captioning on (I was at a birthday party at a sports bar…the idea was to watch the Red Sox beat the Yankees. Once the game got to 13-4 in favor of New York, a few of us were able to turn a couple of TVs over to the debate.). So for the legion of loyal readers who were hoping for an in-depth live blog…sorry to disappoint.

But I did watch it again over the weekend and a handful of things stood out to me.
  • The quote in the title is a perfect example of what happens when a candidate tries to take a point that has a complex explanation and uses it as a talking point: it becomes complete gibberish. Here is the entire portion of McCain’s answer dealing with North Korea:

    As far as North Korea is concerned, our secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, went to North Korea. By the way, North Korea, most repressive and brutal regime probably on Earth. The average South Korean is three inches taller than the average North Korean, a huge gulag.

    We don't know what the status of the dear leader's health is today, but we know this, that the North Koreans have broken every agreement that they've entered into.
    When I first saw this response (on closed caption) I laughed out loud. Let’s forget for the moment the way the sentence in bold reads--it appears that John McCain is calling a tall South Korean individual a huge gulag (which suggests that the three-inch shorter North Korean person is a slightly shorter gulag). It’s funny because it kind of sits out there as a ludicrous, ridiculous piece of trivia.

    But thinking about it a little more, the fact that North and South Koreans have different growing patterns is probably strong anthropological evidence that North Korean society trails pretty significantly. The point McCain was probably trying to make is that the North Korean people are malnourished, do not have access to modern health care and a whole host of other factors that cause North Koreans to fail to thrive, all of which are the fault of Kim Jong Il and his father before him.

    I’m giving McCain the benefit of the doubt that he knows the rationale behind why the size of Koreans is proof that North Korea is a “repressive and brutal regime.” But the problem is that in a debate format, a candidate rarely has the opportunity to expound on these little nuggets. So unless the person watching the debate takes the additional step in his or her mind to walk through the reasons why a dangling piece of information matters, he or she probably hears that and wonders “What the hell does the height of a Korean have to do with negotiating with a foreign leader.”

  • There has been quite a bit made in debate reviews of the fact that McCain would not look at Barack Obama when he was speaking about Obama, or when Obama was speaking him. I think that was probably more evident in the hall than it was on TV. We rarely got to see the two of them except on split screen and in that view it’s hard to tell where the candidate is looking. What the split screen did show was the little flashes of anger that hit McCain when Obama would attack him. He had that reflexive forced grin that says “you’re not bothering me! You’re not bothering me!” that makes it clear that he was quite bothered.

    The candidates seemed to deal with each other’s attacks in a very different manner. McCain hardly responded at all when Obama attacked him. While he sometimes had a hard time masking his facial expressions, he rarely attempted to counter Obama’s claims. I don’t know if he was purposely trying to ignore him, if he thought that parrying the claims would make him sound defensive, or if he had some other strategy, but I thought it had the effect of leaving Obama’s points out there unchallenged.

    On the other hand, Obama made it a point to respond briefly to nearly every attack. The risk in that is that he could have come off sounding defensive. Most of the time I thought Obama was successful in reframing the attacks and was able to do so without being defensive.

  • Finally, I thought the debate played differently via closed-caption than it did with sound. Reading the answers at the bottom of the screen for the last 40 minutes and only seeing the candidates (but not hearing them), I would have scored McCain as the victor. There didn’t seem to me to be a whole lot that was different from what the candidates have been saying all along; I figured that the status quo on the foreign policy front was probably a McCain win.

    But when I rewatched it and heard their voices and their inflections and the points they found important enough to emphasize, I changed my opinion. McCain seemed just a little angry, a little rigid, and a little peeved. Obama seemed more cool and thoughtful…not aloof like John Kerry, but rational and controlled. Even if Obama didn’t win, he at least tied, which is all he needs to do right now.
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