The Moments of Truth

They are like unto children sitting in the marketplace, and calling one to another and saying, ‘We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned to you, and ye have not wept.’ — Luke 7:32, 21st Century King James Bible

When I have a bad day the world does not swerve, is not shaken to its foundations nor rattled to its timbers. This is as it should be. Yet, when Barack Obama has a bad day Democrats gasp and clutch at their hearts, Republicans sneer, and Mr. Mitt comes off a winner. 

The wonder of it all! In the hours that followed the first presidential debate of the season, liberal commentators cried out to their deities, examined the entrails of small animals sacrificed to cast light on the mysteries, and pronounced the President unfit for reelection. With the insight only those blind with fury can have, they looked deep into Barack Obama’s psyche and recoiled at what they saw. Ennui, arrogance, an insouciant desire to hang it all up and knock out a few rounds on the links—it was all there. They shuddered. The President does not want to win! He has thrown the election! My high school debate team could have done better! Alarum!

David Graham of The Atlantic took people like The Beast’s Michael Tomasky, Harper’s Kevin Baker, and unliberal Byron York of The Washington Examiner to task in a perceptive piece which included the great line, “I’m old enough to remember when Obama was running away with the election. It was early last week.” 

Perhaps in a horse-race where the lead changes from moment to moment those backing a particular steed can be forgiven if their hearts freeze in terror when it stumbles. But let’s be real: no legs were broken. This horse need not be put down just yet. 

An hour after the debate I read most of the transcript and I thought the candidates had dealt with some substantive issues. I missed the head-shakes, the downcast eyes, and the pursed lips of Obama, but I also missed the bright gleam in Romney’s eyes as he shape-shifted yet again. 

It’s an interesting experience, reading a debate: it focuses attention on the words and their meanings, not on the gestures, expressions, signals, sounds, and the myriad motions that burn impressions into one’s memory. Researchers in cognitive and perceptual studies tell us that we remember little of what was said but much of what was seen, a fact not lost on political handlers, pole dancers, sales people and senators. 

In a mediasphere formed around images, sound bites, and opinions it might not matter all that much what the candidates think or even less, what they believe in. They are blurred in our eyes, distinguishable only by the captions they are tagged with by the media. Like modernist paintings, they take on the shape suggested by the titles conveniently mounted on the wall next to them. “The new Mitt!” “Obama sags!” “Romney takes command!”

George Gerbner, a communications scholar who studied media effects for decades, believed that the media don’t tell us what to think—they tell us what to think about. They set the agenda; we carry it out and pride ourselves on knowing what’s current. That may not be entirely true anymore. Public figures are primed, prepped, and produced. Like a new line of frozen dinners they come with ingredients listed on the side, a banner with the magic words, “New and improved!,” and attractive packaging. We don’t know what we’ve got until we open it up—and by then we can’t take it back for a refund. This is more than agenda-setting. News organizations used to counter the spin of the public relations people; now they work for them. 

For all the scrutiny that candidates for the presidency go through in the long and excruciating path to election, we may not know much about their souls. We see what we’re allowed to see, hear what’s been scripted, and realize that we’re seeing shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave. None of this is deliberately malevolent or deceitful. It’s simply how business works in a contemporary news cycle. 

The best illusions are those in which the audience trusts the illusionist. Oddly enough, it’s the burden, the weight, the power of the idea of trust between the people and their leaders that can, occasionally, elude the barriers set in place. If there’s any integrity at all in the leader the trust of the people will elicit a genuine response, one that will be evident in the moment. The unspoken hope that keeps this experiment going is the belief in those moments of truth.

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