We remember Paul Newman today as a distinguished actor, philanthropist, committed progressive, and a truly decent soul. And on this day after his passing, his unique career does us an additional service. It helps us to understand why Obama won the debate and why he is going to win the election. As everyone knows, Paul Newman had a one in million smile, and he would certainly be flashing one now if he knew that he had made this contribution.
All we need is one film to make the case. While Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid may not be a great movie, it is a very good one, and perhaps more importantly, it was a timely one. It was a zeitgeist film. It connected with an audience that understood that time was out of joint in America, that we were adrift, that we were losing our collective soul, and that we needed to set things right. When the "bad guys" become the good guys, and "the law" is viewed as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, you know that the world has been turned topsy-turvy. And when an audience feels so undermined that it can immediately connect with the line, "Who are those guys?" that is, those guys who can’t be stopped from chasing us (think here of the Vietnam War and a nation in turmoil back in 1969), you know that things have run amok.
Paul Newman’s films were often successful not only because of their success as works of art, but because they understood the importance of speaking to an audience, something which many of our pundits and commentators still do not seem to appreciate. How so? The night after the debate I spent hours, in true political junkie fashion, listening to commentators. I would listen to the first round of comments, and then since I couldn’t be in two virtual places at once, turn to reruns of earlier broadcasts. I have also looked at many of the editorials in print.
Time and time again, commentators insisted on using sports metaphors to describe the debate, primarily from boxing (points, knockouts) and baseball (home runs, strikes). There were exceptions, but just turn to the print media. What was the big headline? "No Knockout." We heard about jabs that were thrown, and counter punches, etc. We heard criticisms that Obama didn’t throw enough punches, and that he could have brought McCain down by going more on the offence I am sure you have heard this stuff. I won’t belabor the point.
But Obama understands, like Newman did, that acting is about audience. And presidential debates have more in common with acting than they do with sports contests. Or let me put this another way. Presidential debates are like auditions, and if you are going to be successful in an audition you’ve got to be able to have a sense of what the director is looking for and the possibilities of a role. In this case, the director is the American people and the role is president. And the goal of the debater is not merely to score points, but to give a performance that resonates with the desires and hopes of the people. The debate is not an end. It is a means, and it is not a means to merely "winning" the debate in terms of points, but of winning the election.
I am not surprised that polls and focus groups show that more people thought Obama won. Nor am I surprised by the internal numbers in the polls showing that Obama went a long way toward crossing the biggest hurdle that he needed to cross, making voters feel comfortable with whether he is ready to be president. If you think about the debate in terms of an audition, then Obama was wildly successful. Obama appears to have convinced a significant number of people that he is ready to lead, cool under fire, knowledgeable, not easily flustered (by a cranky old guy telling you that "you don’t understand"), and energetic. Further, he reinforced his message that he understands "people like you and me," which was already one of his strong suits. It was actually a beautifully orchestrated event, right down to the ads Obama has started to run.
Obama won this debate in the only terms that he needed to win it. He connected with a larger number of people in the audience than did McCain, and made them feel comfortable with his "playing the role" of president, while discussing a topic that was supposed to be McCain’s strong suit. Obama is going to win the election. And unlike Butch and Sundance, this story is going to have a happy ending.