Book Review by Sapphire Ng
Columbia University Press
Copyright June 2016
Presidential Debates is a markedly entertaining book introducing the layperson to the “high-stakes politics” and “fractious world of presidential debates,” as it concurrently dispels the associated mystique. A highly enjoyable reading experience, the book is not only hilarious, and invokes laughter or sniggers, at multiple occasions, but it is also furnished with beautifully expressive writing that brings the text and subject matter to life, in addition to being supplemented with colorful journalistic descriptions and interpretations. With content structured into 3 distinct sections—Part 1 “Anticipation,” Part 2 “Execution,” and Part 3 “Reaction”—the book explores and presents multiple pertinent facets of presidential debates in a highly accessible manner to the general public.
Noteworthy presidential debates in American history are satisfactorily explored. Crucial to the discourse is the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, particularly the first one of which indoctrinated the perpetuality of a scarring first impression. Amusingly, the Biden-Palin debate—“history's most-watched vice presidential debate in 2008”—was preceded by the customary politics of expectations-setting which dubbed the Alaska governor “Cicero of the Snow” and “a leviathan of forensics,” and where audiences highly anticipated “cringe-inducing pile-ups.” Alikely intriguing, the 1980 Reagan-Carter debate was noted to have involved a “pilfered copy” of Carter's briefing book, with the act exposed belatedly, and a subsequent Debategate investigation that yielded no results. The 1984 vice presidential match between George Bush and Geraldine Ferraro, on the other hand, garnered a media comment that labelled the debate the “nadir” of Bush's career.
The analyses of debaters are discerningly handled, particularly Part 2 of the book which offers a systematic examination of the individuals. In certain instances, the author provides appreciably vivid analogy; Mitt Romney as a debater was likened to “a German luxury sedan: efficient but bloodless, sleek but unexciting,” in accompaniment to his trademark of narcissism. Admiral James Stockdale was raised as an unprecedented example of one who “stepped onto the debate stage with so cryptic a media image, [and] left so pummeled,” while Sarah Palin's debate performance, one whose public image “hardened into self-parody,” was even compared to the demeanor of “a beauty pageant contestant.”
The author accentuated specific eccentricities of debaters' mannerisms that were subject to ridicule—Paul Ryan's “prodigious intake of water” during his debate with Biden; George W. Bush's “facial tics, scowls, slumping posture, and petulant attitude;” Biden's notoriety for generating foot-in-mouth moments—he notably told an audience member in a town hall event, “I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you”—; and John Kerry's prolixity.
At other instances, Schroeder provides highly insightful evaluations that distinctly contribute to the reader's understanding of the unique medium of presidential debates. Gerald Ford's projected image which leaned towards a “local businessman [rather] than the leader of the free world” was attributed to his “lack of theatrical pretense;” Jimmy Carter's strength in his command of facts and issues “became his undoing;” Ross Perot committed “a mortal sin of journalism: he allowed his act to get stale;” Joseph Lieberman's misplaced priority and emphasis on civility; and Obama being “too conciliatory, too unwilling to seize his opportunities, [and] too professorial in tone.”
The book also contains an assortment of rather illuminating lessons gleaned from notable blunders—Republican presidential candidate John McCain's inopportune announcement of his campaign suspension in 2008 a mere two days before his scheduled first presidential debate with Senator Obama “reinforced an existing perception of the Republican nominee as reckless,” in addition to displays of instability and desperation. McCain further fell into “the negative perception trap” as he treated Obama with “testiness and condescension,” displayed “nonverbal aloofness,” and “dismissively” labelled Obama as “that one.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the author mentioned those who prevailed in one way or another. Bill Clinton was lionized as “a master at political theater,” and credited for pioneering the citizen participation format in debates. Ronald Reagan was considered one “completely at home in the pressure-cooker of unscripted television,” and Joe Biden noteworthily pulled off tremendously contrasting characterizations in separate debates against Sarah Palin, and later against Paul Ryan.
Gaffes represent one of the primary highlights of the book, a select handful of which received comparatively more attention than others. Of those most prominently highlighted include John Kerry's “gratuitous” reference to Vice President Cheney's gay daughter, Mary Cheney; Dan Quayle's venture into the “land of Camelot for a JFK analogy,” which ramifications included metaphors drawing him to for example, “a deer caught in the headlights,” and a “cornered chipmunk;” and Gerald Ford's erroneous claim regarding Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.
Soundbites are another attractive and indispensable element of presidential debates, and decently probed in the book. Examples include Obama's specially crafted phrase “horses and bayonets” pertaining to military spending and modern warfare, Romney's memorable “binders full of women,” and Reagan's strategic response to doubts about his age and thus capability to handle the presidency—“I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.”
Hilarity is a major strength of the book; the author's commentary is skillfully tinged with comedy. Two instances which successfully induced laughter include one recounting Palin's recurring mistakes in calling Joe Biden “Senator Obiden” during debate prep, and which miraculously was not corrected by the onset of the actual debate itself. The other instance involved the Gore-Bush 2000 debates, where Gore apparently paralleled his performances with the Goldilocks story, in which the author added, “but when a presidential contender takes to comparing himself to a fairy tale heroine, the news cannot be good.”
The adversarial relationship between campaigns constitute a predominant theme in the book. A Democratic media consultant was cited to describe the presidency as “the only job in the world for which all of the applicants show up at the interview and attack each other.” Indeed the author reinforces that the act of bashing the opposition remains an obligatory part of debates; candidates ought to belabor the “biggest critiques or flaws of their opponents,” and a vice presidential debater's role is to to “strafe the top of the ticket,” or lambaste the opposing presidential candidate.
The concept of presidential debates is also appositely explored by the author. The debates are overwhelmingly designated as “a branch of show business,” “a game of roulette,” and as Obama identified, a medium of “salesmanship.” As the live television that they are, the values of presidential debates are said to correspond to “the values of television: celebrity, visuals, conflict, and hype.” Whilst certain points made regarding the notion of the debates are relatively anticipated, such as the mandate that “star performers be audience friendly,” others are decidedly more intriguing, such as discussions relating to for example, the instigation of audience-related psychological warfare.
The author commendably explored significant debate questioners, and highlighted the earnestness to which they approached their tasks. Apart from identifying for example, history's “most experienced moderator” of general election presidential debates—Jim Lehrer—, “perhaps the most unified group of questioners in debate history” and “a synchronized interrogation machine”—the panel in the 1988 Bentsen-Quayle debate—, or the first single moderator of a general election debate—Hal Bruno—, Schroeder remarkably pointed readers to the agents responsible for specific prominent moments in history. Bernard Shaw was the journalist who infamously posed the hypothetical query about the rape and murder of Kitty Dukakis in the hope that his question functioned as a “stethoscope” in probing Michael Dukakis's attitude toward capital punishment. The moderator for the Biden-Palin debate, Gwen Ifill, specifically her unfinished book about African American politicians was subject to denunciations by right-wing commentators as “pro-Obama agitprop.”
The author's writing is strikingly appetizing at certain occasions. A particular standout involved his reference to a specific prohibition—which forbids the taking of any television shots of any member of the audience, and including any candidate's family members—detailed in the memorandum of understanding in the 1988 Dukakis-Bush debate as a “violation of visual grammar.”
Depending on the individual reader, one might or might not choose to bolster one's learning experiences by accompanying the reading of this book by watching videos, on YouTube or otherwise, of the presidential debates in order to better assimilate the insights and observations raised in the text. An instance to which this would be most applicable are moments where the author provides commentary on the diverging exhibition of stage personalities and dynamics which supposedly slants the debate and audience favor towards one candidate or the other. Otherwise, the book could also be strategically used as an introduction to developing and honing one's skills towards analyzing debate performances, or as an inspirational source for further explorations into the world of presidential debates.
Certain occasions in the book might come across as unwarrantedly bland. Acknowledging the painstaking focus and importance of production technicalities, it however appeared to be excessive when discussions of the temperatures of stage sets in the section “Predebate Tech Checks” in Part 2 of the book included mundane trivialities such as a candidate's comment upon entering the studio, “I need a sweater,” and an ensuing comment by his relative, “What are they trying to do? Freeze my brother to death?”
Granted that this is an advance review copy, the book contains minor spelling errors at the rare occasions—an example being “aesthetic” being spelled as “esthetic” in the phrase “from an esthetic standpoint”—which nevertheless do not diminish the primarily pleasant reading experience.
Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley for this review.