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.
Not for the first time, one wonders: Why have a moderator when all that's really needed is a timekeeper? Why invite somebody from that incessant third party of American politics, the omnipresent media, to take part in what's supposed to be a two-party system? Who nominated Jim Lehrer for president? Don't the candidates themselves posture enough? Do we really need another source of pomp and self-promotion in an already rhetoric-drenched presidential campaign? Isn't the job of the media to cover the news, not make it? Yet when the media is represented at a presidential debate (which really isn't a debate at all but a kind of joint, fractious press conference), the focus on the candidates themselves can be lost, or at least compromised.
There is a whole science, art and rulebook of debate. Just ask any high school debating coach. Why not make a presidential debate a real debate instead of the high-stakes quiz show it's become? The rules were good enough for Messrs. Lincoln and Douglas, so why not for our time? Cutting out the media would by no means assure that we'd get debaters on the level of Mr. Lincoln and Judge Douglas, but at least we might be spared the Jim Lehrers.