Only perfect will do

Oct 7, 2012 By Steven R. Peck

After pretending to be average Joes, candidates must appear extraordinary at debate time

The first of the three presidential debates has come and gone, and neither President Obama nor challenger Mitt Romney managed to do or say something fatal to his campaign.

It was a lackluster encounter in which Romney came off better than he and his handlers had told us he would (one of the oldest tricks in the debate book), and in which the president did something considerably less than wipe the floor with his opponent. He stood there and let Romney rough him up a bit, and most people probably would say Romney did better.

But there was no eye rolling or sighing, which is said to have damaged Albert Gore when he debated George W. Bush in 2000; no surreptitious checking of a wristwatch, which is said to have made George H.W. Bush look bad when he debated Bill Clinton in 1992; and no stumbling to recite an Internet address as Bob Dole did in 1996, also against Clinton, when Dole apparently thought the "dot" was a period, as in the end of a sentence, requiring a pause as he tried to spit out his campaign website. "Visit www (pause) Bob Dole for President (longer pause) -- com," he said.

Nor did one candidate get in a "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy"-type zinger as Lloyd Bentsen did against Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice presidential debate. And, thank goodness, there was no technical snafu of the sort that happened between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter in 1976, when the studio sound system went on the fritz for nearly half an hour, and the two candidates simply stood, motionless and without speaking, for the entire time. That debate was reshown recently on C-SPAN, and the audio failure in retrospect was a spectacularly awkward and almost unbearably uncomfortable thing to watch, and weirdly comical at the same time.

So worried were the two men that they might say or do something that would appear weak, or indecisive, or uncool, or simply wrong during the technical difficulty that each decided all he could do was stand there for 27 minutes.

No, last Wednesday's debate had nothing of that sort in it. In the annals of presidential debates, it might well not be remembered much at all.

And that's OK.

A presidential election shouldn't turn on a candidate's facial expression during a one-second cutaway on television. The outcome of such a contest ought not be balanced on a scale so delicate that a candidate's knowledge of a piece of trivia makes the difference. One stiffly-uttered remark isn't the sort of thing to sink a candidate.

This is all too important for that. They have either been running for office, or holding it, for years. They have made countless decisions, read a ton of policy material, confronted and surmounted untold obstacles to get where they are. Their heads are bursting with advice and information as they walk onto the debate stage, and they may well be exhausted, distracted, nervous, or all three.

They are human beings, not machines (although it was hard to tell the difference in the '76 audio failure featuring Ford and Carter). A debate has little or no resemblance to anything they will be required to do in office.

Yet this is what they also have to do to get there. The same might be said for tasting cheese at county fairs, eating onion rings at the local diner, and filling out college basketball brackets in order to appear to be regular guys.

Regular guys they aren't. Perhaps, then, that is the value of the debates after all. They are the one place where we don't ask our presidential candidates to be ordinary. On the debate stage, nothing but extraordinary will do.

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