The First Debate: Body Language

September 27, 2008

After all the theater preceding the debate, I was surprised to see such cautious, measured talks at the debate.  They were both nervous particularly at the beginning. There is a video and complete script of the debate here.

McCain, while seeming like a tight spring, maintained a reserve that seemed to be broken only by dismissive comments toward Obama.  Obama on the other hand seemed more relaxed but at times struggled for the right word and slid into his habit of saying “a-a-a-a” as filler while he searched for the next word.

Does anyone else see Nixon in McCain’s style of talking? They have that same hunched-over delivery and a similar gravamen.  Nixon had a more “presidential” manner when he spoke, geturing more broadly and varying the tone and meter of his speech a little more, when he was at his best.

Obama’s reserve came across clearly enough with him more or less declining the invitation to look at McCain (who never turned from the audience).  Obama’s response to the moderator’s invitation to talk to McCain was interesting.  He started mixing up his pronouns, alternating between second and third person when talking about McCain and would only glance at him.  He seemed particularly forceful later the few times he actually turned and spoke to McCain.  When he did that however he did not vary his somewhat professorial tone.

They both seemed rather grave which no doubt was appropriate.  Obama has a great smile which was caught on camera occasionally when there was a shot of him looking at McCain while McCain spoke.  It did not seem mean spirited or anything of the sort.  McCain’s smile on the other hand seemed like a cheek muscle exercise.  When he smiled to reveal his sharp little teeth, he conveyed more malice than mirth.

In the candidates’ interaction with the moderator, Obama took the lead.  McCain strangely had almost no interaction with him, but followed Obama’s lead.  This created a sense of poise in Obama that was not present throughout the evening.  McCain, staying hunched over and looking straight ahead, conveyed at these times a brittleness of manner, something that he is trying to avoid.

Obama’s loose limbed lankiness served to promote a sense of comfort, which contrasted with McCain’s rigid hunched over posture.  His smile when they met on stage at the beginning of the debate, combined with his manner, seemed authentically gracious.  McCain’s smile and manner seemed uncomfortable and perfunctory.  That struck met as unexpected as McCain is billing himself as the sage leader and Obama as the young neophyte.