Having seen it done on other blogs I thought I would try to do a real time running commentary on tonight’s Clinton-Obama debate from Austin.
It seemed like a good idea but, like so many of my good ideas, it quickly ran afoul of reality. It turned out that keeping track of the time plus trying to type or characterize what they were saying plus supplying even occasionally perceptive commentary was one more skill than walking and chewing gum at the same time — which I have long since understood were beyond me.

My interest in these joint press conferences labeled as debates is minimal anyway — although now that both parties are down to two candidates there’s more potential for an interesting dustup. Being the deeply superficial kind of observer that I am, I am primarily interested in the atmospherics. The questions and answers are predictable and processed and predigested. What little spontaneity seeps through is thin and far between, so it’s hard to imagine that anybody actually learns anything substantive from watching.

But then, from the beginning, TV debates haven’t really been about substance. The Ur experience —the Nixon-Kennedy debates in the 1960 campaign— were, as we all now know, also the debut of style over substance. Nixon, who had recently spent two weeks in the hospital, had lost 18 lbs. and 1” off his neck. He campaigned right up until the last minute. He didn’t buy a new suit or shirt for the event and then refused makeup. Kennedy had gone to Palm Beach to work on his tan and then spent the hours before the first broadcast in his hotel suite engaged in the unorthodox, but undoubtedly relaxing, kind of debate prep he favored.

People who listened on radio tended to think RN had won. His voice was strong and his answers were fact-filled and responsive to the questions. Those who watched on TV drew the opposite conclusion. Not to put too fine a point on it, Kennedy creamed him. RN had been told that the background would be dark, so he wore a light suit. The background was light and he and his baggy clothes practically disappeared into it; the only thing really visible was his five o’clock shadow. Kennedy’s tan positively glowed above the dark suit (that fit him impeccably) and he popped off the screen as vital and authoritative.

Nixon’s perennial problem with perspiration was also on display at that first debate. (It was interesting to see that, after Senator Obama almost sweated up a Nixonian storm on camera at an earlier debate in South Carolina, his advisers must have figured out a fix by turning the a/c in Austin down to meat locker levels. At a couple of points during the debate, the top sheets on the candidates’ note pads started blowin’ in a wind that looked to be about a force 5.)

Here are the first 15 or 20 minutes of my attempt at running commentary:

HC looks very good. Relaxed. Opening delivery good. Her voice calm and relatively modulated. Does she sound a bit hoarse? If so, it’s working for her.
She’s dropped the earth tones and pastels and is wearing a very decisive black/gold outfit like the dragon lady coat (with the dragon literally on the back) she famously wore to her deposition.
The makeup and hair look like they cost the 1000s they probably did. On second thought the black/gold combo may be a bit too powerful. The curved collar looks authoritative but in a cruel and unforgiving kind of way —- like it’s off the rack from the Ming of Mongo boutique in downtown Mingo City.

She wastes no time. She’s reminiscing about spending time with Barbara Jordan — a slam dunk at UT.

She is seated next to BO on his left — nearest the questioners’ podule. If this position wasn’t the result of drawing the short straw she made a big mistake. On the long shots she is always in frame — which means we get to watch her looking to her right watching him…..and watching him….and watching him.

She’s smiling at him but not in a good way. What I wouldn’t give to have her real thoughts scrolling across the bottom of the screen.

8.11 He’s blathering on about examples of people he has met who happen to illustrate the point he wants to make blah blah blah.

She’s still smiling fixedly at him like he’s something on the bottom of her shoe that’s annoying but not worth the effort involved in removing.

Now he’s including her in the point he’s making and her look hasn’t changed.

She’s blinking a lot. Maybe they told her about controlling her voice and her cackle but they clearly didn’t tell her about the blinking.

8.13 He says “special interests” —and not in a good way—and gets applause.

This is very cool —- OB sees and raises HC on BJ. “Senator Clinton mentioned Barbara Jordan — and I remember what she said, ‘What the American people want is very simple — they want an America that is as good as its promise.’”

How cool is that — he trumps her Jordan ace. He appears to be looking down and possibly reading when he quotes the quote. Was there a mole in Fortress Clinton or did he also just figure out he couldn’t go wrong quoting BJ here of all places?

8.15 Jorge Ramos, the Univision anchor, begins with the obligatory (and am I alone in thinking at least semi-demeaning) introductory clause in Spanish. Do it or don’t do it but don’t half do it and leave it dangling. Would she be willing to sit down with Raul Castro “at least to get a measure of the man”?

Now BO is looking at her with a fixated smile. His hands are folded in front of him on top of desk — this is a good move because it anchors him visually.

Lots of gesticulation. She won’t meet Raul or Mahmoud until there is evidence that change is happening.

8.15 “We’ve had this conversation before, Senator Obama and myself,” she says with big icicles hanging off every syllable.

Her answer gets restrained applause.

Campbell Brown follows up asking BO if he would be willing to meet unconditionally. His gesticulation is still anchored by the resting left hand.

He gets another applause line.

HC is doing something with her chair — adjusting it? Looks like it’s a swivel.

Campbell calls him out on his prior quote about unconditional meeting with dictators.

He “recalls” when John F. Kennedy once said don’t negotiate out of fear but don’t fear to negotiate. He gets polite applause.

8.19 HC agrees that we should be “willing” to negotiate.
Now her hand is on the table anchoring her gestures and she’s more working the audience more expansively.

Yes! She shoots she scores! She trumps his JFK quote — JFK wouldn’t be afraid to negotiate but he would expect a lot of preparatory work to be done. (At last we have a 2008 “and Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” sort of moment.)

This is where I stopped transcribing my notes. Had I realized the debate was going to go on for 90 minutes I would never even have started.

Looking through my notes, there are a few other things that stand out. About 30 minutes in, HC started writing furiously on her note pad. At one point, I wondered whether perhaps she was working on a chapter for the sequel to Living History.

In his answer to John King’s question about the economy, BO started dropping selective “g”s — in that phony kind of NPR way of expressing solidarity with the working class that reacts like fingernails on the chalkboard of my mind. Thus in an otherwise perfectly formulated and expressed answer, we were suddenly “shippin’” jobs overseas and families “makin’” 50k a year or less were “struggling” (but at least they were doing so with the “g” intact). I know I need to get more of a life but this drives me nuts.

There were a few interesting exchanges later in the debate —- interesting because they generated a little heat and it appeared for a moment that the gloves might come off and one or the other might actually say what they were really thinking. Of course the night that actually happens, CNN will have to cut away to cover the breaking story of pigs learning to fly.

In sum, I think they both did very well. They looked and sounded as good, in their own very different ways, as they could. She was strong but not noticeably strident. He was unabashedly hopeful but in a less vapid way than in some of his recent appearances. It was good politics and good TV. The only thing that could have made it better would have been that running scroll at the bottom with what they really wanted to say.