The Debate on TV: What Happened to Al Gore, Attack Debater?

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It's amazing what a nice set of functional furniture can do. Last week, George W. Bush and Al Gore stood at podiums, and Gore, as befitting the furniture, gave what came across as a lecture: correcting his opponent, holding forth, sighing in exasperation at Bush's answers. The pundits and the polls agreed: Gore had won the debate. Then he lost: within a week, Bush had opened up a lead in several polls, as voters apparently decided they were tired of Professor Know-It-All.

For their second debate, they sat around a little half-circle table — I believe that was the "Politik," $169.95 in the debate accessories section of the Ikea catalog — and Gore came across subdued and humbled to a point. He didn't sigh. He didn't interrupt (much). He generally refrained from constructions like, "Let me explain why," "And here's how this works," or "Now let me put this in terms your puny man-brain can fathom."

Certainly there had to be coaching involved here. This debate, for Gore, was more about not doing certain things than doing anything in particular: for starters, he lost the heavy blush that made him look like the Corinthian leather seat from a 1979 Chrysler Cordoba. But the change also seemed to derive from the act of sitting down, literally getting off your pedestal. And here Gore, not Bush as expected, may have benefited more from the format, which may literally have saved him from himself.

The problem, from a telegenicity standpoint, was that while Gore eliminated the negatives, he didn't have much to offer to replace them. (Oh, he had issues and such, but come on — we're talking TV here.) Gore was a prisoner of the camera, appearing nervous and self conscious of his body language, his wording, his breathing. He was yanked back by an invisible harness whenever he came close to sneering, to uttering a personal anecdote that would be leapt on by some network-news Truth Squad. When he did attack Bush on a point of fact, the effort to reign in his disdain was palpable: questioning a Bush answer on Texas hate-crimes laws, he said, dispassionately, "I may have been misled by the reports that were in the news." You could practically see the bite marks he left on his tongue.

This was the debate format that was supposed to be most hospitable to Bush, the "Larry King"-style free-flowing exchange around a table that played to his down-home strengths. Bush did seem relaxed, perhaps too much so at times, as he fell back into a body language that suggested he might lean over and loose a stream of tobacco juice at any moment. In this respect, he may have been saved by the format too: Jim Lehrer, who ran a much tighter ship, rules-wise, than in the first debate, is not exactly a buddy-buddy moderator, which probably kept Bush from becoming overly laid-back.

Still, he did manage a couple of Bushisms, including "There has to be a wholesale effort against racial profiling, which is illiterate children." Perhaps the most interesting line of the debate, in fact, came when Bush decried how the killers at Columbine could "have their hearts turned dark as a result of being on the Internet." One could say that ascribing a mass medium with the power literally to make people evil is a rather silly and disturbing argument to be put forth by a candidate for the leadership of a democracy. But I digress. Now, go forth, my readers, and kill! Kill! Kill! Rise up, my vast army, and do the sacred bidding of your dark master!

Ahem. In the end, whether Bush came across a bit floundering was not entirely the point. The real battle tonight was between Al Gore and the parody of Al Gore on "Saturday Night Live" last weekend. Gore certainly made the SNL Gore disappear last night, but he may have made himself disappear in the process. And sure enough, this time around, he lost the instant audience polls and the pundit consensus after the debate. Given the aftermath of the debate he "won," of course, that may have been precisely the strategy. The question, to be fought out in the following days of on-air punditry and polling: can Al Gore win for losing?