“All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players..."
--William Shakespeare, "As You Like It"
I only watched the first fifteen minutes of the Presidential debate last week before I switched the TV over to view the last Red Sox game of the season. Admittedly that wasn’t a very inspiring choice either, as the Bronx bombers destroyed the BoSox 14-2 on a rainy Wednesday night. But I’ll admit it. I nixed the first debate. I don’t plan to tune into the other two debates either, nor the Vice Presidential smack down between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan or even the televised tussles between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, which I like to call “He Said-She Said”.
I’m guilty as charged, a civic slacker I guess. Unlike 67.2 million of my fellow Americans who watched Obama and Romney go toe to toe, the next time the dark suited contenders stride on to the stage to perform, I’ll be watching a rerun of “Mythbusters” or maybe “CSI” to chill out after a long work day. Yes I’ll absolutely read the newspapers and listen to the radio and surf the net the next day to learn about what happened and what was said. But watching it live? I’ll pass.
Because there is one truth I think most citizens, politicians and media types know about the debates but are reluctant to name out loud. Debates are about performance more than anything else. Debates are theater, political theater sure, but theater nonetheless. Debates are for the most part highly scripted events, right down to each and every body movement, gesture and seemingly “spontaneous” remark.
It’s no mistake debates happen on the stage, before an audience, in a theater like setting. The stars are two actors who have prepped for weeks and weeks to learn their lines cold, and have rehearsed over and over before the big night. Then finally it is show time. The curtain rises. The thespians stroll on stage and the drama begins. Act 1. Scene 1. They act. They perform. And just in case one of them actually says something unplanned or unrehearsed their minions and sycophants await just offstage ready to spin it all back on script.
And then there’s us, the audience. I’d like to believe that when we watch a political debate we’re sincerely trying to learn more of the substance of what a candidate might actually do if elected. Yet the truth is we are also hoping to be entertained and amused by a candidate’s flub or a debater’s one line zinger, right? We secretly watch a car race for the crashes. Why should this blood sport be any different?
The most talked about, tweeted about, discussed remark by Obama or Romney last week was not the Governor’s plan to cut federal taxes. It was not Obama’s defense of universal healthcare either. No. It was Governor Romney’s remark about cutting funding for Big Bird and “Sesame Street”. Big Bird. Is this the central takeaway from the two men who would lead the United States of America for the next four years? Yes it is a cute line and certainly quotable and I’ll bet Obama wishes he’d come up with something similar. But really?
Yet that’s how it has always been for these Presidential sitcoms, political reality TV writ large. No one remembers the substance of the debates but everyone can recall that one great line. Walter Mondale asking President Reagan in 1984, “Where’s the beef?” Candidate Reagan grabbing a microphone at a 1980 Republican debate and angrily declaring, “Mr. Green I paid for this microphone!” 1988 Vice Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen skewering Dan Quayle: “Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy!”
Lots of light. Lots of flash. Lots of heat. Lots of posturing. Good for a YouTube viewing. Then lots of critiquing the next day about who “won” and who “lost”, who “came across” as Presidential and who seemed flat and listless but not a lot of substance. Not much gravitas. Reading the debate articles the morning after, I wondered if I was perusing theater reviews rather than cogent political analysis and thought.
One New York Times reporter wrote Romney looked like an upbeat choirboy and Obama like an uptight college professor. Well thanks for that analysis! We certainly now know much better who can govern our nation through the most challenging and momentous times in a generation or more.
So during the next month I pray that every American will read and think and consider carefully all the issues before casting their vote. But for me and my civic discernment, how a candidate “performs” on a debate stage has little or nothing to do with the real work of the Oval Office.
All the world may be a stage, but finally, being President of the United States is not an act.