Paul Greenberg

Who won and who lost the first presidential debate? Both camps, predictably enough, were ready to proclaim victory even before the debate was over, or maybe even before it had begun. Winning and losing in presidential debates tends to lie in the eye of the partisan beholder.

The medium and not the message may be what counts in these matters. On television, appearance is all. On radio, voice. The classic example is the first, historic Nixon-Kennedy encounter in 1960, when those who watched it on television thought a witty, photogenic, panther-graceful and, yes, sexy John F. Kennedy bested his jowly, jaw-shadowed opponent. Richard M. Nixon was already beginning to resemble cartoonist Herblock's unflattering image of him: a mix of sewer-dwelling thug and lesser used-car salesman. And in these cases, seeing is believing - maybe even believing too much.

But on radio it was a different story, and a different debate. Mr. Nixon's deep, authoritative, bass tones made Senator Kennedy sound like a shaky young tenor with an uncorrectable Boston accent given to talking about the threat from Cuber. In contrast, Vice President Nixon's voice projected strength and experience, especially when it came to matters of foreign policy and defense, while Jack Kennedy's had a superficial ring, reflecting mainly wealth and style. Some of us weren't much surprised when the Missile Gap he made a central issue of his campaign turned out to be largely fictitious; his voice was never convincing when he spoke about it.

In short, what the candidates say may matter less than how they say it. And the rule may still hold for McCain-Obama in 2008. John McCain may have been more authentic, but Barack Obama was definitely smoother. Who won, who lost? You cast your vote and you takes your choice.

But there could be little doubt about who lost Friday night's debate: the referee. Jim Lehrer of PBS proved the model of an immoderate moderator as he moved around the ring trying to get both contenders to slug it out. He brought to mind a playground bully trying to get two kids to mix it up. At one point he took refuge in complete inanity, as when he told the debaters to cover the subject of Russia in two minutes. Well, why not? That country is only 11 time zones wide and maybe a dozen centuries old. Two minutes should be more than enough, maybe with 15 seconds to spare for Europe or Asia.

And so things went, usually nowhere. For the debate centered about foreign policy at just the moment when domestic policy, especially the financial meltdown, could have used some attention. Lots of attention. And the chief distraction was being provided by the interlocutor who was supposed to keep the candidates on track.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.