I’ve done some debate coaching, and found I wasn’t very good at it.
In an interview or a debate, I know the prepared answer works best, but still, it’s the quick answer from the heart or the cuff, often prepared but cleverly inserted if the opening appears (Remember Reagan’s “Now there you go again” flip to Carter?) that wins people over.
Johnny Carson was always considered the master of the ad lib, having stored away thousands of one-liners he’d heard along the way, with the ability to recall just the right one and insinuate it into a conversation, always drawing a laugh, and always disarming the other parties. To be able to immediately recall the right words, and insert them with perfect timing into a conversation is considered to be more genius than skill and Carson was a genius.
But most of us only acquire this skill of recall and perfect timing after the third beer. (Ever notice that?) Most of us are still chewing own cud, still looking for just the right word, still going through our internal search engine for that rapier-like cut across the opponent’s chest, “Z”, long after the opportunity to wound him has passed.
This is why candidates prepare, and this is why I could never be any help to them.
Staring down dogs
What I can do well is stare down dogs (no pun intended). And it’s an acquired skill.
I’ve been telling younger people for thirty years, whether shaking hands or just walking down the street or a hallway, look a man in the eye and you’ll own him. And when you walk down the street notice how many people avert their gaze.
In debates of course, it’s look the camera in the eye. It’s the wry smile, the confident eyes, the cheerful demeanor that Ronald Reagan used to launch his prepared words, and it was in his delivery, with Reagan a gift, that allowed him to take down an opponent in front of an audience…while still nominally talking to that audience.
Age helps, for I’ve found once you settle into the notion that you have a natural advantage over younger whelps, just by experience alone, it’s impossible to cow you, or shake you…unless you’re naturally shakeable anyway. Since we’re all mature, experienced adults here at UP, long out of kneepants, I’m sure you all know what I mean. Experience breeds confidence.
Before all the prepared lines are spoken, there is the handshake and first “look.”
In the 2008 debates between McCain and Obama it wasn’t hard to see who had, not so much “the look” as the absence of one. McCain was the wizened old veteran and Obama, the slick young upstart, but Obama was the rock star.
I can’t speak to how the audience assessed the evolution of facial encounters over their three-debate cycle, as I wasn’t really looking for any signals at the time. But on reflection it seemed, from McCain’s face, that he acted like he was being greeted by Bono in his suite, after being invited upstairs after a concert. And from Obama’s face he looked as if he was shaking hands with a doorman at a Hollywood opening.
But all the questions as to who Barack Obama really is hadn’t been asked in 2008, so no one paid attention.
Now they are being asked.
“The Look” is calculated to do two things, not one. First, establish in the opponent’s eyes not just a lack of fear, but an air of confidence. Second, assess that first look in the opponent’s eyes as to what it is in you he recognizes..something he fears, hates, disdains, or maybe doesn’t recognize at all.
The political intelligence value in this sort of first eye contact analysis can be immeasurable, especially for use in evaluating changes in subsequent encounters.
You see, we know Obama can look a minion, some one beneath him, in the eyes with all the strength and condescension of a lord. No sweat there. But if you’ll recall his facial expressions while Paul Ryan was giving him a tongue-lashing during the budget debate, I’m not so sure Obama has ever had to look a man in the eye who intends to kick his ass across a continent in a few weeks. I don’t know if Obama can recognize the better man, or how he would look when he did. He’s been insulated for many years, now.
Romney’s first look, and Obama’s return look…trust me, Romney will establish eye contact first…will tell Mitt and his team things the American people have been hungering to know for four years.
Close-up shots of both men’s faces at that precise moment will go far in establishing the tenor of the second, and third debate.
As for the look itself, well, I know it when I see it, and have seen glimmers of it in Mitt’s face many times. He should practice for about an hour and choose the right one.
I’m not sure Obama can look a really confident man in the eyes. If he is indifferent, a narcissist, a space captain, Mitt will see it first in his eyes. And if he is a man with a deep, dark hidden agenda, Mitt Romney will know this too after Wednesday night, and will proceed with a new understanding as to what it is he is really running for.
Mitt Romney has things Obama doesn’t have. And can’t have. He needs to convey that the first time they shake hands.