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The 2nd Presidential Debate: Obama and Romney Cut a Very Red Rug

By Earl Yazel
Thursday, October 18, 2012 16:52 EDT
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Romney and Obama debate screenshot
 
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The two Presidential candidates danced around in front of an audience this Tuesday last on an extremely red carpet at New York’s Hofstra University. In High Definition television that carpet really wasn’t too easy on the eyeballs, now, was it?

Literally, they danced around, all but circling one another, walking towards and away from one another and the  audience members assembled around them — who all came tastefully dressed, some to ask them questions, the members who did being “undecided voters” who may or may not have been planted to ask loaded questions of the candidates. Each and every one of them.

A certain younger female participant is being attacked by the right-wing media for her rather routine query about equal pay for women… not exactly a new issue in America. As inferred here, there’s now various arguments about some of the audience members who ventured questions, and the controversy is somewhat silly, as none of the questions by any of those involved were dealing with much of anything the candidates didn’t feel themselves prepared to talk — and gesticulate — about. None of these questions were all that tough or unanswerable, according to whatever the respective party line generally is – but all in this supposedly more visually exciting setting that gets sillier every time it’s used.

A question that grabs one about this episode in the televised debate process is:  who came up with this uniquely… uh…  physical debate format?

I’m trying to recall when it started without actually submitting to the temptation of actually looking it up.

Was it Clinton and the elder Bush who started with a more mundane iteration of the sitting-on-a stool- and-then-getting-up-and-slouching-towards-Bethlehem format, where they come out and take a few steps towards the crowd like lumbering badgers, or Karloff’s Frankenstein monster — sort of giving the emotional jolt to the proceedings that are meant to remind one of when Abraham Lincoln stands up at Disneyland — before wandering back casually, or purposefully, towards their seats?

It makes for clumsy maneuvering, nowadays, for whatever reasons. It seems clumsier with each edition. One would think it would have become more graceful as our screens became wider. Nope. Maybe the wider screen “opportunity” is what’s given campaign advisors on this matter too much leeway, like choreographers for a bad Broadway effort.

It’s a chance, one supposes, to “check out the overall package” and physical forms of these worthy candidates. Or something a little stupid, like that. It invites speculation on how some of our more beloved or well-known Presidents might have felt having to waltz around clumsily in front of a crowd, like this. On a brilliantly red carpet.

Since the birth of television, pundit-types have wondered if Franklin Roosevelt would have been embraced even by today’s supposedly more enlightened voters with his reliance on a wheelchair and braces. It was, of course, something of an open secret in his day how physically debilitating Roosevelt’s polio was — although he was famous in the Democratic Party itself, and among his family members, for his almost superhuman upper-body strength.

Maybe to show his physical worth, nowadays, an ever-optimistic FDR could indeed challenge his conservative foe to an arm-wrestling match on television, one that he’d decidedly win. Say — that would be corking good fun to watch!

Roosevelt was also quite well-known for being unflappable. It’s difficult to imagine he’d have much trouble taking apart most of the people who will be running in the November 7th election this year in any debate, for any office. Whatsoever. Which makes the t.v. thing actually most terrifying, as we all ought to know by now. But who knows? Maybe Franklin Roosevelt would be able to pull off winning through t.v., too, quite seriously.

Would Abraham Lincoln’s great height and appearance be a detriment, or a welcome sight, on television, in the sort of debate we had this week? Put him in modern dress for a moment and shampoo his hair. Shave the beard. Or maybe not. How would he have looked? I mean, aside from being a decided brainiac who would quash virtually all of the politicians of this era like unwanted picnic ants?

We can imagine Teddy Roosevelt cutting a jaunty figure, jumping about, in this sort of “town hall” debate. He was a boxer with a probable “short person’s complex”… he’d have no trouble jumping out of an awkward camera angle. We can also imagine him doing lasso tricks in the same format. It would be even better if he wasn’t invited to do any and did them, anyhow. Perhaps I’m carrying that over from those Natural History Museum movies with Ben Stiller and Robin Williams. (Did Teddy Roosevelt do lasso tricks, actually?)

Harry Truman would also probably look pretty good jumping around in one of his “natty” suits. Mr. Nixon, famously, did get to present himself physically on t.v., and had an infamously poor showing as a television candidate against Mr. Kennedy: Richard Nixon, having once suffered an injury as a boy when a cart ran over his head in front of his father’s grocery store (or so I’ve read), was not known for his physical gracefulness. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that maneuvering about on a giant red carpet in HDTV might not be Richard Milhous Nixon’s forte.

All of this does lead us to wonder what these gymnastics are really for. It’s given the opportunity to political commentators on each side afterwards to continue to frame the debates this election in terms usually reserved for descriptions of physical prowess… each guy “Brought His Game”… “Really Showed Up”… elsewhere on this very site it is announced that Obama “Ate His Wheaties”…

… but the format itself, where these candidates are having to maneuver their persons in the way amateur actors appear in an “unblocked” dramatic presentation, strikes me as a nice experiment that was intended to give a more casual atmosphere to the proceedings, but now seems to have devolved into a ritual that borders on the unintentionally comic at any given moment far more than it needs to.

We imagine one of them tripping and falling over their shoes, or each other, at some point — or, if one of them is more near-sighted than the other because, you know, he or she actually reads books and things, he or she might accidentally trip over a small snag in the carpet left by a chair the night before.

If they do a Buster Keaton-esque double take afterwards, will this be a proper and essential requirement for good Presidential timbre? When our High Definition, 3-D  equipped televisions in our Spacely Sprockets Future reveal to us that a brassiere strap has slipped under a blouse, or a zipper has gone unzipped — will the Leadership of the Free World rest… on this??

Maybe we ought to just lower one of those disco balls that have become a chic retro decorating staple in some households, and the candidates can just dance for thirty minutes — there can be a solo competition, they can dance with each other, and then we can see them do it with their spouses and family members, like at the end of Little Miss Sunshine.

Then, in the style of “Dance Party” programs on local t.v. stations, the audience can come onto the giant carpeted area and dance it up for an hour freestyle with the candidates and one another, as the Secret Service looks on. Do the Hustle! After all, we know that whoever wins will be appearing soon on popular daytime talk shows as part of their Presidential duties and they’ll awkwardly dance, maybe sing, do push-ups, jump up and down on a couch, or whatever. Why not just get this out of the way before the election?

Earl Yazel
Earl Yazel
Earl Yazel currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he grew up and attended university. He has written for and participated in broadcasts for the flagship Pacifica Radio station KPFA in Berkeley, California, on the long-running Over the Edge program. He may be reached at e_yazel@yahoo.co.uk
 
 
 
 
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