Saturday, September 27, 2008

Body Language Debate

Most of the Tee-Vee hairdos, talking heads, and viewer polls we've seen give last night's debate to Obama, or generously call it a draw. But almost everyone is expressing mild surprise that McCain didn't lash out and physically clobber Obama over the head with a blunt instrument, so hostile did he appear on the Tee-Vee screen.

McCain, many are saying, looked angry and talked down to Obama. He was sarcastic and belittling toward Obama. He wouldn't look at him. He blinked a lot.

Far more than their words, it was the contrast in body language during last night's debate that was stark -- and not to McCain's advantage, as any number of commentators across the literary spectrum are noting.

Reporter Richard Adams in the Guardian:
Television is of course words and pictures, and physical interaction of the two men was a fascinating study all of its own. On that level Obama certainly did better than McCain: he looked directly at McCain as he spoke. McCain refused to look in Obama's direction - even as he was delivering his own attacks against the Democratic candidate, and so allowed his body language to undercut his spoken language, suggesting that he was uncomfortable or even embarrassed.
* * *
Obama, though, looked directly at McCain throughout. And that made his words all the more effective. McCain, meanwhile, just grinned at something off-stage.

But on a larger scale, McCain made a strategic error. He wanted to reiterate his theme that Obama is too young, too unready, to be president. But with Obama there on stage beside him, looking presidential behind his podium and measured in his manner, McCain's words just didn't ring true.

Television critic Alessandra Stanley in the NY Times:
Theirs was a generational collision, and at times it looked almost like a dramatic rendition of Freudian family tension: an older patriarch frustrated and even cranky when challenged by a would-be successor to the family business who thinks he can run it better.
Novelist Merrill Markoe at the Huffington Post:
McCain sometimes seemed so unable to conceal his rage that I thought I was watching a weird Bill Plymptom cartoon of McCain's face morphing in to a tea kettle, with a rattling lid and steam coming out his ears. Every time McCain mentioned "reaching across the aisle," I thought "To do what? Grab someone by their throat and shake them til their eyeballs pop out of their head?"
Eugene Robinson, WaPo political columnist:
Throughout the 90-minute debate, McCain seemed contemptuous of Obama. He wouldn’t look at him. * * * His body language was closed, defensive, tense. McCain certainly succeeded in proving that he can be aggressive, but the aggression came with a smirk and a sneer.
Pollster George Harris, in the Kansas City Star:
McCain appeared angry and dismissive of Obama and generally impressed as someone who would slap colleagues across the aisle if reaching over to them. He said several times in the debate that he hasn't won the Miss Congeniality contest in the Senate, and he proved why during the debate.

I suspect that women voters especially would be turned off by McCain's sarcastic tone because women do tend to be the conciliators in our society... . McCain wouldn't return the eye contact but rather glared or displayed a tight and angry expression.

I also suspect (but don't have the data to support) that older voters were also turned off by Senator McNasty.
Even Christian Broadcast Network reporter David Brody found it "very noticeable" that McCain avoided making eye contact with Obama:
He never made eye contact with him. Obama kept looking at McCain.
When the visual evidence of your eyes shows you a rash, impulsive gambler with a Napoleon Complex, it's difficult to believe him when he claims to want to "reach across aisle" and heal partisan divisions.

One final note that may not have been obvious to the average viewer but which has been noticed by a few others: something deliberate was going on with the technical production that must -- simply must -- have been demanded by the McCain campaign. As Kathyrine Seelye, wrapping up a live blog at the Times, notes:
As for the optics of the night, that was some fancy camera work: Mr. Obama is noticeably taller than Mr. McCain, and yet they appeared of equal height, both in simultaneous side-by-side shots and at their lecterns.
You might call this the Alan Ladd Affect. Hollywood history tells us that in order to sell the diminutive (5'4") Alan Ladd as a tough guy in gangster movies, Paramount Pictures resorted to the full range of visual tricks to disguise his height disadvantage, from elevator shoes to special camera angles.

Once again, life imitates art imitating life.

1 comment:

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