Two Experts Look at the Debating Styles of President Bush, Senator Kerry
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JEFFREY BROWN: Earlier this week we got a debate preview from two students of the form. They join us once again. James Fallows is a national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, where he wrote a recent article on the candidates’ debating styles.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson is director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. And welcome both back again.
Professor Jamieson, I wanted to start with you. On Wednesday you said you expected a classic rhetorical clash between two men who have very different debating styles. Is that what you saw last night?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes. And let me give you an illustration. In the debate, the president says that we’ve changed the culture of the FBI the senator moves by recapping that “the president just said the FBI changed its culture” and then he moves to fact and specifics.
He says “we just read in the front pages of America’s papers that there are over 100,000 hours of tapes unlistened to. On one of those tapes may be the enemy being right the next time.”
Now what did President Bush do? President Bush hears Sen. Kerry moving toward a concept that sounds a little strange to President Bush, who is much more comfortable with plain-spoken English. He hears the senator saying there will be a global test applied to preemptive I have action where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you’re doing what you’re doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.
The president then says “I’m not exactly sure what ‘passes the global test’ means.” And then he moves to theme, principle. “My attitude is you take the preemptive action in order to protect the American people.” Then remark wrist I can of bush, he says it in other words.
JEFFREY BROWN: James Fallows, what did you hear in the contrasting styles?
JAMES FALLOWS: I thought there were a lot of substantive issues on the table. I was looking at the way each of these debaters performed relative to his experience in this mode. I think John Kerry was a logical extension of what he’d done over the years as a debater where he became more relaxed under the ongoing pressure of the debate and was sort of in a prosecutorial mode, just bearing down on the president.
The president, to my surprise, just in comparison with his own experience was… this was probably his weakest debate performance of all, just in a technical sense. There are two technical problems I think he had. One is at his best in debate he’s been able to use his two or three main points which he insists on again and again and again, but to do it with some elegance.
JEFFREY BROWN: You said the other day that he’s able to take a question and quickly get back to these two or three other points that he wants to make.
JAMES FALLOWS: Yes. And this time he didn’t even bother with the getting back to. He just read off the points. And the way he’s performed in recent press conferences, it’s not the way he’s done in his previous debates. The other thing that was surprising and a contrast to his past debating appearance was his simple physical bearing.
Where in past debates he seemed confident, upright, relaxed. And I think the cutaway shots, which appeared to take him by surprise, although realistically he should have known he was on stage, you know, every moment, they did not convey this air of confidence that a president in a debate would like to get across.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you have written that debates are about projecting personality. So what came through?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well, I think debates between an incumbent president and a challenger for reelection are about a particular kind of personality. The analogy is very powerfully with the 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
Reagan then challenging him for reelection, where Reagan had been dismissed as an extremist, a movie actor, but simply by being on the same stage with Jimmy Carter, he was considered a plausible other president.
I think John Kerry, that was the test for him just in a physical sense. Being up there on the stage with the president, by his physical bearing, by looking more relaxed, by standing more upright, I think he had a more successful physical presentation.
JEFFREY BROWN: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, about his body language, what struck you?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I remember moments in the Kennedy/Nixon debates where Nixon is taking an important point and Kennedy responds by taking notes, thereby distracting the audience from an important point.
Last evening, Sen. Kerry took notes at important points when President Bush was making his arguments and when those were shown in juxtaposition, the audience was distracted somewhat by the note-taking and the note- taking is an implied rebuttal. In those moments Sen. Kerry gained some advantage.
JEFFREY BROWN: Another thing that was noticeable, it seemed as though Sen. Kerry would be looking at Jim Lehrer when he was responding, whereas the president stared right at the camera. What did you make of that, Professor Jamieson?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I don’t know whether the audience responds to that by understanding the conventions of news in which you sometimes are talking off camera to someone and other times you’re talking into camera. I mean, for the moment, I’m looking into a camera but I don’t see you, you’re off in Washington.
Audiences are pretty sophisticated about understanding that there is both the physical presence in a debate and there’s an audience through the camera. I didn’t think either one of them was inappropriate. I thought they both worked.
JEFFREY BROWN: How did you read that?
JAMES FALLOWS: I thought that was a technical plus for the president that he knew to address the larger audience in the country side rather than just… with all respect to the moderator in that room.
The matter of Sen. Kerry writing notes is interesting because that may have been distracting, as Professor Jamieson is saying, but what the president was doing by counterpoint was acting often distressed, alarmed, peeved and occasionally confused whenever Sen. Kerry was making a challenging point to him.
And I, so I think that served not to undercut Sen. Kerry but instead to have an unwelcome kind of attention on the president himself.
JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Jamieson, there was so much talk beforehand about the constraints of this kind of a debate, the time limits, etcetera. How did it feel to you in the end? Did it feel like a debate?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yes, it did. There was a lot of engagement between the candidates. There was the possibility for follow-up when it was required and sometimes President Bush pushed and got extra follow-up and that helped.
I thought the time constraints actually helped Sen. Kerry because he was at his most focused and most precise. Remember, we said the other night that the Sen. Kerry you see on the stump is not the Sen. Kerry in past debates.
He tends to be focused and more precise. Those blinking lights didn’t catch him at all. He stayed within his time limits.
JEFFREY BROWN: How do you feel about that?
JAMES FALLOWS: I agree. I was impressed the senator had sort of honed his presentation to fit the time. And I think as we were saying earlier, this was a constraint that might actually do him well.
Am I allowed to say this on these airwaves, the moderator, Mr. Lehrer also did a very good job in asking respectful but tough questions and following them up.
JEFFREY BROWN: We’re biased on that one. We’ll agree. Go ahead.
JAMES FALLOWS: So I think the main… again, the good side of this debate for the public is at a time it brought up the issue on which the election will, in fact, turn and we did get to see at some length the positions of both the candidates and their parties. I think, again, as a technical matter, the Bush team will be going back to, you know, sort of reconsider its plans for the next debate more than the Kerry team will.
JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Jamieson, what about the rhetorical use of language that the two candidates presented with President Bush, you had him repeating certain lines. We heard one in the Florida group, the person referring to “the wrong war, wrong place, wrong time,” that kind of thing.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: If you listen to the 90 minutes and watch the 90 minutes of debate and you couldn’t repeat mixed messages are bad, “wrong war, wrong place, wrong time” or “not good for our troops, our allies, and the Iraqi people” then redundancy wasn’t correlated to retention, and academic research suggests that it is.
The president pushed that message throughout the debate and it is his strength. At the end of the debate, he got that message through. On the other hand, Sen. Kerry was trying to make more different points.
The point I think he made the most clearly was that this was not a war of last resort and the president had promised that it would be. But in terms of sheer redundancy, the president got an advantage on that message.
JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think this is about, rhetorical artistic merit?
JAMES FALLOWS: I think there were three phrases that caught my mind. One was, the president said 12 times “this is hard work.” And I think that may have the impression of sort of a Freudian message. That might not have been on- message the way other things were. Sen. Kerry introduced two phrases he hadn’t used before this extensively. One was that the president’s policies had boiled down to four words, “more of the same.” And so putting the president on the test to say what will you do differently and saying in response to this mixed messages, that you can be certain and wrong. And so that’s his way to respond to the flip-flop language.
JEFFREY BROWN: Jim Fallows and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, thanks again.
JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: You’re welcome.