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September 26, 2008

McCain Would Have Won … If He Wasn’t So Weird

Debate-Nyt1

Debate-Nyt2

My take on Friday night is captured by the second and last image in the NYT.com front page post-debate slide show.

What is stunning to me is how much the media and the nets are expressing reservations about  McCain’s performance when — especially listening to clips of the debate on the radio — I thought McCain was rhetorically more effective than Obama.  What accounts for that, I believe, whether articulated explicitly or implicitly, is and was McCain’s manner.

These images — not so casually chosen, I believe — account for a lot about the personality of McCain, particularly his capacity to relate to others.

The first shot picks up on the point made about McCain’s lack of eye contact with Obama, which I agree stems from arrogant contempt.  Driving home the contrast is Obama’s eye contact with McCain, his physical embrace, and how Obama’s overall approach, facial gesture included, actually conveys a paternal quality — all the more noteworthy coming from the much younger Obama.

In spite of his didactic and sometimes ponderous debating style, I think Obama’s performance — pairing his widely noted emotional steadiness with instances in which he looked into the camera and spoke calmly to people at home — conveyed a warmth and emotional dimensionality which departed markedly with the pique and emotional pinball quality of McCain.

This dynamics of the second shot are frankly devastating.  The Obama’s “familial tone” is natural to the point of mundane.  This is in contrast to the daily campaign trail spectical of John and Cindy, and the frankly peculiar, relentless helicopter-like behavior Cindy exhibits toward John.  What the photo most effectively and boldly captures, however, is the distance one senses from McCain not just toward Cindy, but — at least from what  I’ve observed — from John toward everyone except daughter Meghan, his males buddies Lieberman and Graham, as well as the military vets he meets on the road.  Of course, what the picture more easily nails is the odd, fidgety and hyperkinetic McCain who (and I feel the psychological dynamics of this go beyond any war-related injury) never knows quite what to do with his hands.

Overall, what I think the debate reflected and The Times photos captured — especially, given McCain’s better performance along most technical measures –  is how much Obama is more normal and Mac is more weird.

(image 1: Doug Mills.  image 2: Stephen Crowley. New York Times.  Oxford, Mississippi.  September 27, 2008)

  • http://www.doves2day.blogspot.com g

    AT the end, the Obamas walked over to the McCains to shake hands. Graciously.

  • vicki

    The “hands” thing. That has disturbed me from the beginning. His arms pointlessly flailing about like his elbows were attached to his waist. I often find politicians’ gestures forced, but his are just freakin’ bizzare.

  • Bill in Pittsburgh

    I had an uncle who was in a German POW camp in Poland for 2 years, it really messed him up for the rest of his life. It seems obvious that McCain is mentally ill and (after talking to some doctors here who looked at the material posted from his 1000 pages (!) of medical records) dying of cancer. His Admiral daddy got him into the naval academy, where he graduated at the bottom of his class. The class screw-up. If you read the details of what happened to him in Vietnam, it was complex; weird stuff. In DC, McCain stopped the search for MIAs in Vietnam following the war, which the press has never really explored. McCain is just a tool and with the goal of putting a real neocon, corruplican (Ms. Palin) into the white house, he’ll do what he’s told.

  • JayDenver

    I pulled the following from a Talking Points Memo post “So Angry” regarding last night’s debate. It’s from a TPM reader who studies primate behavior:
    “I think people really are missing the point about McCain’s failure to look at Obama. McCain was afraid of Obama. It was really clear–look at how much McCain blinked in the first half hour. I study monkey behavior–low ranking monkeys don’t look at high ranking monkeys. In a physical, instinctive sense, Obama owned McCain tonight and I think the instant polling reflects that.”
    http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/

  • NoContest

    Obama was stunned right out of the gate. McCain had poise and focused nastiness when we expected him to be an unprepared basket case. Post-debate coverage from FactCheck.org and Truth.com revealed several McCain lies and mistatements from Pakistan to subcommittee hearings. If Obama had been prepared to challenge any one of these it would have been a Carter/Ford moment. It was a good experience. That’s how they play in Washington when the facade of social decorum comes down. He will be more ready for the next debate and for his his Presidential term.

  • 14All

    I didn’t watch the whole debate, but from what I saw, I received the strong impression that Obama felt sorry for McCain and was pulling his punches for that reason. The first shot really captures that impression of empathy well, I think, but it’s almost as if the object is unable to receive it–his failure to even look at Obama seems more autistic than just arrogant to me.

  • JayDenver

    Following up on comments made by Bill in Pittsburgh and 14All: I wonder if anyone else noticed a similarity of expression in Obama’s face in the top photo and Cindy McCain’s face in the second photo. Tight lipped, controlled. Grief?
    In the first photo, McCain does not return Obama’s look, but stares off into the distance. In the second photo, McCain, isolated, seems almost to plead for contact. Do they know something we don’t?
    Were the events of the past week, especially the failed attempt to postpone the debate, an attempt to keep McCain’s condition from becoming too apparent? Something strange is going on.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Riggsveda/ Riggsveda

    I tried to post a comment earlier and may have screwed up. Shorter version: the man’s body language reveals the kind of person I dread to have sitting at the helm of my very badly battered nation. Pray that most people will listen to their primitive brain, and vote for the one whose demeanor DOESN’T signal weakness, confusion, and fear.

  • feller

    I have to disagree with your analysis. I don’t think McCain “won” on the merits in any way. I would agree that Obama failed to seize openings, but McCain was at times quite confused sounding and dreamy. He was not any more coherent than Obama.
    His point about having actually been to the places under discussion was ridiculously trite and emblematic of his dangerously superficial worldview. Having been in the military I know that anytime a bigwig goes anywhere, the presentation is controlled by the brass. So McCain is essentially bragging that he has been to what are widely known as “dog and pony shows” and this somehow makes him a better judge of world events? He is a foolish hot-head who gets away with it because he was a POW.
    I may be wrong, but it seems to me that strategy concerns who and where we fight, whereas tactics is how we do it. And in the military the smart guys say that amateurs discuss tactics, professionals talk logistics. This means that the tactics are evident to pros. The surge was a tactic to further the longterm strategy, which was fostering Iraqi independence. In that regard, the tactic has not furthered the strategy. Sure, it has stabilized the region somewhat, but that doesn’t necessarily make Iraq ready to fly solo.
    McCain talks about Petraeus as if he were Jesus. It is disgusting and indicates an un-American reversal of the principle of civilian rule. And Obama failed to mention what a miserable bastard McCain has proven to be with respect to veteran benefits. His plan is to encourage other veterans to marry a hot million-heiress, apparently.
    No, on the merits McCain did not prevail. Further he simply couldn’t respond to Obama’s criticism of his embrace of the failed GOP philosophy of trickle down.
    Otherwise, I agree, McCain seemed angry and, gosh it may just be visceral, but I got a sense that McCain was displaying racism in his denigrating and patronizing manner.

  • Bennett

    In the second picture, notice how relaxed (and relieved) Obama’s shoulders are and the comfortable, informal posture of Michelle Obama’s hips and leg. They look like they are quickly returning to being normal persons.
    McCain seems to be looking for someone to give him a hug. Cindy McCain doesn’t give a rat’s tail. Her thoughts are elsewhere—maybe on something trivial, maybe on something important—but the each of the McCain’s is on his or her own.
    While I think Obama’s disposition would govern his approach with almost anyone, at moments such as in the first picture he seems to have compassion for McCain. He seems to be thinking: the poor guy’s in declining health and not really close to any other human being.
    Obama’s ability to discuss issues & views clearly & strongly, not to be angry, and to juggle the human element at the same time is one of his strongest features. This kind of thing is often seen in truly, not superficially, religious people. In any case, it shows him as some who, as we know from his books, has actually processed his issues to grow through them into maturity.

  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com Stan B.

    Don’t know what, if anything, the debate actually proved. Obama, yet again, demonstrated he was the more presidential, and McCain showed he wasn’t quite as dumb as his messianic running mate. I suppose I keep wanting Barack to go in for the kill shot a la a Malcolm X who could do it via fact, wit or humor. Drop a cage on ya (of your own making) and poke ya with a big fat stick should you so much as protest.
    Maybe it’s as simple as the difference between growing up in an island paradise, as opposed to an asphalt one.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/john_bannion/ harrier

    I think you nailed it on the visuals. We missed the debate for a baseball game, got home and checked out dailykos and of course concluded that Obama was terrific, so I was surprised to hear how effective McCain sounded on the NPR radio clips this morning. Obama was adequate, but not terrific.
    But the visuals, the video clips and the still shots are just plain devastating to McCain. Nixon’s sweaty upper lip was nothing compared to McCain’s evasive shifty eyes and painful body language; the photographic record is not lying and he is just going to get worse, even without the dead weight of Palin behind him.
    If we were in the days of radio, I think McCain would have scored better.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/john_bannion/ harrier

    A quick p.s. The second shot above really is shattering. To me McCain looks as though he’s pleading for the audience to somehow come up and help him. Kind of sad, but I don’t have time for a lot of compassion any more.

  • http://home.comcast.net/~sfs73/index.html MonsieurGonzo

    ref : “I thought McCain was rhetorically more effective than Obama.
    yes, i agree… McCain has this capability to strike certain words and phrases that, as if in the peal of a bell (do ring and sound loudly and sonorously) do appeal, thus to something more immediate, stimulating ~ encouraging this seeming involuntary, spontaneous response within the American listener. otoh, You must hear it in monaural medium: his rhetorical effectiveness, apparent does not, imho transcribe into text prose “well writ” ~ nor does it jibe with the visual poses of his being in context.
    There is in his ringing of us this rhythm of underlying unreasonableness that renders “Fact Checking” the man moot, a trivial pursuit: for reason is not how Mr. McCain is heard by the herd. “He speaks to something inside me,” she said, (as if, this means his words have real meaning?)
    interestingly, they do not identify with Mr. McCain. This is not like, say ~ that gimmick of the “Gender-Driven” bubba-in-drag genre or “Proletariat Identity” candidate that Mrs. Clinton performed so well, and that Mrs. Palin plainly is.
    Some may say they truly like Mr. McCain, but one does not wanna-be alike him; after all, he is quite literally a tortured soul.

  • Johanna

    Hey, is the doctor in? Because you have missed the relationship that is obviously his closest — with his mother. He clearly has some kind of regressive mama’s boy thing going on there, which she weirdly mentioned in his convention biopic. When she is able to be on the platform, it is to her that he gravitates. But oddly, neither of the couples conveyed closeness in their staged reunions after the debates. I hate those little shows — and the mother of them all was Gore’s french kissing of Mrs. Gore. Obama almost seemed surprised to see Michelle….

  • martin

    I am concerned considering that Mccain probably won the substance of the debate: measured, precise answers likely would have swung the unsure.
    The Bag introduction – and almost without exception, the thoughtful comments of posters – do not detract from how this will play out. Folk with neither the time – nor our enhanced tutorleage will ‘get’ this story differently.
    Will take Jon’s (offcamera) hurummphs seriously: an innability to make eye-contact as an established manner to deal with ‘guerillas’. Negate. Create the ‘other’ and ascribe to primative history.
    Unless there is a recognition of both a deep-seated racism in US and concurrent realisation of how the two-thirds of this world so importantly view the outcome; I am feared for a disastrous outcome on 5th Nov 2008. Democrats need to up game&values. rapidly

  • http://imtalkinghere.typepad.com Victoria

    How true to note the different body language in the two couples. I have always been impressed at how physically natural and fully relational the Obama’s are in public. I take that to mean that they are both so fully centered that they don’t get knocked into faux by the energies of a crowd. This is genuine power.
    The eye contact problem was the most arresting visual about the debate. Here is what I wrote to a few friends immediately after:
    For me, the most striking thing about the debate tonight was John McCain’s inability to look directly at Barack Obama – and that includes during both of their handshakes! Utterly unable to make authentic eye contact. I know it looks like anger, contempt (and I doubt that would play well with independents), but I actually viewed it as fear and self-protection. (What can I say? I am familiar with the terrain. I grew up in a house where rage was a daily presence. But it was really a father intimidated by his wife and children because they displayed finer material than he could muster. Our internal ethical and perceptual structures were just worlds beyond his. A most unfortunate meeting of souls. Around less intimidating folks, he was much “nicer.”)
    McCain seems to want to think of himself as Heroic. My guess is that for him to really look at Obama puts the lie to that and it’s more than McCain can bear. Too rattling. The whole faux construct might crumble. Barney Frank’s description of McCain as “Andy Kaufman’s Superman” comes to mind.

  • eurika

    Wow, you are all a bunch of loony lefties! McCain angry, scared of Obama?!!!
    Bwahahaha! Try again!
    Your Messiah is such a great actor that he is pulling wool over all of your eyes!

  • Karen

    Bag, I’d love to hear your reaction to this:
    McCain made a huge error in his opening, it was a screw up right as he left the gate:
    “I have a sad note tonight, Sen. Kennedy is in the hospital, he’s a dearly beloved friend to all of us, our thoughts and prayers go out to a lion of the Senate……..and Jim, I’ve been not feeling too great….”
    He opened up reminding people of death and illness and carelessly connected it to himself. Huge mistake. He made a subliminal statement: Sen. Kennedy might die and I’m not feeling well myself. It was if he was telegraphing:
    “Kennedy is old and sick and at the end of his era. I am old and sick and at the end of my era.”

  • Mr Dott

    The second shot could be of the Obama family leaving the Sunday service at church and stopping to shake hands with the preacher. The dress Michelle Obama is wearing is one you might expect any middle class woman to wear. The McCains don’t look like an estranged married couple and you don’t often see a woman dressed like Cindy away rom the office.

  • Samantha

    “I think people really are missing the point about McCain’s failure to look at Obama. McCain was afraid of Obama. It was really clear–look at how much McCain blinked in the first half hour. I study monkey behavior–low ranking monkeys don’t look at high ranking monkeys. In a physical, instinctive sense, Obama owned McCain tonight and I think the instant polling reflects that.”
    I don’t think this is accurate at all. Sorry. I enjoy watching primates myself, certainly I’m no expert, but primates can exhibit this behavior for other reasons as well. An older, dominant but fading silverback can ignore a powerful rival in his troop and not make eye contact at all, because he knows what the future brings. Another reason for lack of eye contact, stiff body language and physical ticks in primates, as in people, can be the result of abuse or emotional/mental instability. The latter is probably the case with McCain. Because fear is not the explanation for McCain’s behavior.

  • giovanni

    I am from Italy, english is of course not my main language. I barely ever speak it, I only sometimes listen to clips or videos of people talking in english, so I can’t grasp all the nuances of the talking in such a debate. My opinion could be therefore interesting because it’s a different POV. I only watched the first half of the debate, but I had the firm feeling, even though I’m from head to toes for Obama, that he wasn’t on par with the ability of Mccain to talk consistently, to convince and to “make a point”, he seemed without doubts. And when Mccain attacked, Obama replied but the answer that always left me with a bitter taste, he was attacked 100%, replied with a 70% attack and the other 30% was like “forgiven and forgotten” and left me wondering. If I had to pick a winner I would say Mccain, he seemed like he knew what he was talking about and that’s what matters for 51% of the inhabitants of any country, let alone mine where this percentage is reaching atrociously high levels. I wish there was such a site about italian politics, but I frankly don’t have any of the skills…

  • The BAG

    Karen, I’m glad you brought up McCain’s opening statement. There were numerous, if fleeting instances last night where I felt a sudden very shrink-like anxiety that McCain was about to depart into complete non-sense. For a while in fact, I was actually trying to keep track of his non sequiturs.
    I have two thoughts. McCain seems to respond to any demand situation with some kind of hysterical or dramatic reaction. For an instant, I thought he was going to announce that Kennedy had died. I don’t think the instant of drama I experienced was an accident. Second, I agree with you about the projection. I think McCain was trying to make a joke, but it became connected and blurred with his own fear of mortality through his identification with Kennedy.
    I might also add, people consistently attribute these slips to McCain’s age. It’s quite possible McCain’s style of thinking has gotten even looser in the past few years; I haven’t followed him anywhere close enough to know. My sense, though, is that this looseness, this disconnected form of thinking, this emotive and “micro-form” of coming unglued is actually quite longstanding.

  • http://www.doves2day.blogspot.com g

    I’m interested in the theory of primate behavior instincts as a possibility for McCain not looking at Obama, but there is another set of animals that also have this complicated instinct about eye contact, and that’s dogs. A submissive dog won’t make eye contact with a dominant dog, he’ll cringe away. A dominant dog will challenge a lesser dog that looks him in the eyes, sometimes attacking him. One of the methods human trainers use to establish themselves as Alpha dogs is to make eye contact.
    I don’t know whether McCain was afraid of Obama or not, but he certainly had a noticeable aversion to looking at him.
    It could be that the fear he had was for his own emotional state – he feared his own anger and averted his eyes to avoid being spurred to anger or losing control.
    Or perhaps he feels hatred toward Obama and fears revealing it.
    In any case the behavior was notable, and there must be a reason he did it. I don’t think it was a rational reason, but rather an involuntary emotional reason.
    It wasn’t good behavior. It was ungracious, uncolleagial, and not presidential. Wise and successful leaders don’t do such things. You couldn’t ever imagine Ronald Reagan doing such a thing, not in your wildest dreams.
    It didn’t help McCain at all, so if he chose to do it rationally, kor whether it was a deep-seated emotional response, it gives one pause about his temperament.

  • Lynne

    You might take a look at this: http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2008/9/27/191442/796/466/612779. It excerpts an article in the Washington Post about events in that conference room at the White House on Thursday:
    Obama then jumped in to turn the question on his rival: “What do you think of the [insurance] plan, John?” he asked repeatedly. McCain did not answer.
    One Republican in the room said it was clear that the Democrats came into the meeting with a “game plan” aimed at forcing McCain to choose between the administration and House Republicans. “They had taken McCain’s request for a meeting and trumped it,” said this source.

  • http://theforgottenwar.blogspot.com Sergei Andropov

    “His point about having actually been to the places under discussion was ridiculously trite and emblematic of his dangerously superficial worldview.”
    It was also emblematic of his pervasive dishonesty. If, as he says, he has been to Waziristan, he knows that a) the terrain is so nightmarish that the “clear and hold” tactic could never hope to work, and b) it is located in Pakistan, which would object to us occupying their land and which possesses nuclear weapons.

  • eddie spaghetti

    The social distance thing in the pictures is most interesting (and frightening) feature to me. Coupled with fact that McCain bridges the distance with his mother best…I read this as dementia, maybe cerebrovascular kind, or some other damage to the brain, most particularly to personality center in right frontal lobe. I have intracranial tumor pressing on that location, and have developed extreme difficulty with social connectedness. I used to be normal in one-to-one interactions, though always shy with group. Now with the compromised brain quadrant, I can bridge social distance pretty much only when intereacting with a sibling or parent, or a friend from h.s., i.e., those established in longest-term memory. The long-term memory thing is characteristic of dementia, at least according to my Dad who has it. In the beginning, he described the gradual lapsing into old memories more and more often. Perhaps the Czechoslovakia slip McCain made reveals that he is operating on those older, easier-to-access memories often. And whoever described the looks of grief and sorrow on those faces, thanks a lot, that was some acute perception. Seems totally right; those are the looks that the heart feels as a family member slips slowly out of reach.

  • http://www.doves2day.blogspot.com g

    Someone brought to my attention this exchange of letters between Obama and McCain from back in 2006.
    McCain took offense at something that sounds like inside-baseball Senatorial committee procedure, and I don’t know enough about that to know whether Obama committed some kind of breach of etiquette, or whether its just Grampy McSame flipping out because the black kid wouldn’t get off his lawn.
    But it’s astonishing to me the venom in McCain’s tone. For whatever reason, he has a serious personal antipathy toward Obama.

  • Carla

    Remember the Nixon Kennedy debate? The people that heard the debate over the radio thought Nixon won. Those who saw it on TV thought Kennedy won. The difference? Their body language. People listen with both their ears, hearts and eyes. The visuals in this debate (like Kennedy & Nixon) are very powerful and telling.

  • pedant

    “Spectical”?
    We spelled it spectacle when I was growing up.

  • DENISE

    I believe John McCain, just as the Clintons, has amassed a lot of hate and anger toward Barack Obama for several reasons. The first reason is the emergence of Barack Obama into the primary race. When Barack Obama decided to run for President, the Clintons, who are political smart people, were aware, unlike Blacks and the MSM, that Obama would be a “serious contender” with Blacks…these folks are “seasoned politicans”…They knew Barack was not your run of the mill Black politican, he was not a Sharpton/Jackson carbon copy, which meant that he would have a good chance of capturing at least a segment of the Black vote…which, in fact, he did. What the Clinton’s did not count on was Barack’s apparent appeal with whites. This was the “surprise” development that none of the “team” had planned for. The reaction by whites to Barack, as well as the ninety-five percent Black support of Barack, disrupted the Clinton’s game plan. John McCain IS a longtime friend, he is also, a trusted FRIEND. Bill Clinton repeats this “constantly”, has made NO secret of this, no matter who he is talking to. Because of this friendship, McCain believes that Obama “stepped” out of his “place” by one-upping Hillary in the primaries. McCain believes that Obama has not “paid” his “political dues” and this shows in his attitude and demeanor whenever he encounters Obama…All of these characters believe that Obama unfairly played the “race” card against Bill Clinton, even though none of them are Black and wouldn’t know racism even if Cindy McCain was “wearing” it…thus the McCain/ BILL HATE and DISDAIN…Hillary is just out there “playing the 2012 game”…true supporters of Obama know the “bamboozle” game only too well…..

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