Critic’s Notebook: Presidential debates as theater


The final presidential debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney takes place Monday evening in Boca Raton, Fla., and if the concluding round is anything like the other two, the theatrical presentation of the candidates will be more closely scrutinized and squabbled over than their platforms and positions.

To determine the outcome, an army of talking heads will attempt to turn the study of body language, intonation and facial expressions into a science on par with handwriting analysis and horoscopes. Don’t bother the fact-checkers about the legitimacy of the candidates’ claims — call in the experts on nonverbal communication: the acting gurus. (James Lipton of “Inside the Actors Studio” has been making himself available.)

Media critics and more sober-minded pundits derisively call this type of analysis “theater criticism.” Time magazine’s Alex Altman recently observed that “instead of returning to dissect some of the subtle and substantive exchanges … most of the debate analysis consisted of theater criticism,” and New York Times liberal op-ed stalwart Paul Krugman set up the same opposition in one of his post-debate columns.


PHOTOS: The presidential debate

Altman acknowledges that theater criticism of this sort matters, “because it shapes voters’ impressions of the candidates,” but the implication is clear that the pundits are evading what’s really important. Here we get to pick the catastrophe of our choosing — the crisis in entitlements, the looming fiscal cliff, a nuclear Iran, the Chinese as our controlling bankers, congressional paralysis, environmental Armageddon or, in greater likelihood, all of the above. (Perhaps Monday’s moderator, CBS’ Bob Schieffer, will use his veteran wiles to uncover an answer to that most confounding riddle: Why would either man want this migraine-ridden job?)

Drama critics are always getting it in the neck when campaign season rolls into high gear. As a proud, card-carrying practitioner, I can’t help taking issue with the simple-minded dismissal of my craft.

With a lineage that includes such influential intellects as William Hazlitt, George Bernard Shaw, Henry James, Stark Young, Eric Bentley, Kenneth Tynan and Frank Rich, theater criticism shouldn’t have to defend itself against the charge that its mission is a superficial one. One could only wish that a drama critic and playwright as politically astute as Shaw were on hand to elevate what passes for “analysis” these days.

Transcript: Read the arguments

Note the time spent by inquiring cable minds on whether that was a smirk, a smile or a grimace on Vice President Joe Biden’s face when he was listening to Paul Ryan excoriate the Obama administration during their windy vice presidential debate, which at times had me feeling as if I were eavesdropping on warring uncles in an Irish pub in old Brooklyn. Style points had to be deducted, and though Biden was widely considered the winner on substance, the result was knocked down to a draw by a pundit patrol absolutely certain that women and independents were turned off by the nonstop mugging.


To think of all the nuances that were missed in the dark days before the 24-7 news cycle!

The subject this time around for the presidential debate will be foreign policy, but count on the postgame commentators to stick to their own scripts. Their focus will once again be on which of the nominees does a better job of flexing his presidential muscles without running roughshod over the moderator or alienating all 16 remaining undecided voters now in a secure focus group compound somewhere outside of Bethesda, Md.

INTERACTIVE: Predict a winner in the battleground states

It’s undeniable that deportment is persuasive to voters. So too is the mood of a nominee. Romney changed the direction of the race after scoring a decisive victory in the first round with a cagily effective strategy of thrust and parry that was just aggressive enough without crossing the line into road rage. And Obama stanched the bleeding in the polls by rousing his competitive fire in the second debate after showing up to the gentlemen’s initial square-off with his pilot light seemingly snuffed out.

But drama critics eager to live up to the best of their tradition wouldn’t devote their reviews entirely to the emotional impact of an actor’s flaring nostrils. The challenge, of course, is to connect character conduct to a vision that has more at stake than an individual’s fate. Personalities should lead to ideas. After all, theater at its best is a form of embodied argument, and high-level criticism in any field seeks out larger meaning and resonance.

To that end, Obama’s lackluster performance in the first debate was troubling because it exposed a weakness in his leadership — his ambivalence about getting down in the political muck and doing whatever it takes to champion legislation his administration has deemed necessary and urgent.

Obama often seems to scorn the showbiz of governing, preferring to remain above the partisan fray, floating in a cloud of policy details and contingencies. In an era when the Republican opposition in Congress has erected an obstructionist wall, bipartisan kumbaya is a pipe dream that no one can believe in. But aloofness and impatience, qualities that were conspicuous in the president during the first debate, are hardly a solution to the current governmental impasse.


Romney’s debate performance brought to mind a CEO marching up and down the halls of a company that’s about to be downsized. Beholden to no one, not the moderator, not the president, not even his former self, he presents a serious problem for the media forced to reconcile conflicting statements and sort out uncertain facts. This is especially challenging at a time when charges of bias are being leveled against a journalist even as strenuously evenhanded as CNN’s Candy Crowley for (however clumsily) trying to clear up a point on Benghazi that had both nominees stuck in a you-did-you-didn’t rut during their second debate.

The big loser in all of this is coherent argument. The British have a word for Romney’s five-point plan of vagueness and obfuscation: waffling. One would think that a contender for the presidency wouldn’t be allowed to play so fast and loose with his positions. Granted, it’s not easy to take aim at a rapidly moving target, but there seems to be a general inhibition about forcefully calling out dodgy claims, as though truth itself were a function of party allegiance.

Theater critics would surely note the manner in which two dramatic combatants stalk about the stage, confronting one another and imposing their personalities on the proceedings. But the best would do more than speculate on the public’s reaction to this show. Bigger than the horse race is America’s future. This politically cooked-up spectacle has depth, if only we’d have the courage to probe beyond the dramatic surface.\charlesmcnulty