Mr. Brokaw… I’m Ready for my Close-Up

October 8, 2008

Right now, American political discourse is enjoying some sort of metaphysical afterlife along with God and Punk. It’s been dead for quite some time now, but only in this current election has the stench become so¬† obvious. Much can be said about how mass media (I won’t say bourgeois media) has transformed (I won’t say eviscerated) political discourse, in terms of how it is owned and funded by the capitalist class, or how it forces passive consumption of news and issues, or how it limits debate within ideological boundaries, or how it has privatized a traditionally public sphere of debate, yada yada… but this is a whole other story.

I started writing this post because I hate the feeling I get after watching election debates. There is an overwhelming sense of futility in paying attention to the debate itself because, ultimately, the quality of the arguments don’t matter. This is why I’ve been drinking straight Jack during the debates. It’s not about who wins the debate, but who wins the American Idol performance contest. The debates are more of a casting call. In the same way, voters don’t elect a person for president, but the image of a person. What interested me is how now, more than ever, the language of a candidate’s debate performance is informed by the debate’s visual medium of presentation. The performance game is becoming more like a screen test. Take the Vice Presidential debate, which many have called a “stalemate”, even though Sarah Palin barely managed to deliver completely unrelated memorized tidbits in response to Biden’s charges. Rhetorically, it was quite an absurd event. But those conservative people reacted to her, because she actually spoke to the American people. Unlike Biden, who looked at his opponent or the moderator, Palin had her eyes right on the Camera. She smiled and winked. It was like watching an infomercial… and we know how infomercials can convince us to buy just about anything. In that sense, Palin’s screen language was successful, she was a trained beauty queen.

So what about yesterday’s debate between Obama and McCain? I venture to say that Obama outperformed McCain during the screen tests. Whenever Obama watched McCain answer a question, he reminded me of this video of Frank Sinatra and Tom Jobim:

I was struck by Frank Sinatra’s body language: how he fondles a cigarette, leans back on his chair, smokes, and opens his chest with nonchalance. Meanwhile, Tom Jobim, leaning over his guitar, strums the songs he composed, humming and and singing in portuguese while Sinatra takes a drag of his cigarette. Although Sinatra provided the face, the voice, and the image; Jobim was the engine, well attuned to Sinatra’s nicotine rhythm. Take a look at these two-shots of Barack during last night’s debate:

I would say that Obama embodied both Sinatra and Jobim, both the cool and the rhythm. Obama attentively watched and smiled, but he didn’t lean back on his chair as the smug Sinatra did, he was poised for attack, ready to jump in. McCain on the otherhand, scuttled around, scribbled, fidgeted and compressed his face. Look at the two-shots in the video below:

Compared to Obama’s height advantage and more youthful fluidness, McCain appears more like an angry troll. His referring to Obama as “that one” was so poorly delivered, that McCain came off as a petulant teenager. To top things off, the debate ended with McCain leaving an Obama handshake hanging center screen.

So what does this reading amount to? Not much. This debate can only help Obama’s rise in national and state polls. Voting in the US has devolved into a choice between brand names instead of policy positions, too many voters relate to candidates as abstracted images of themselves, in the same way consumers choose designer labels to complement their self-image. At least, my reading attaches some semblance of a methodology in assessing these image-people. Which may be enough to calm my earlier frustration and occupy me until the Jack drains away.

– s