Last night’s debate on foreign policy was supposed to be President Bush’s show, a chance for him to strut his stuff about the war on terror and permanently affix the label of flip-flopper to the allegedly Botoxed forehead of John Kerry. Yesterday’s conventional wisdom held that everything from the debate’s topic to the flashing lights of the timers would put Kerry at a disadvantage. Here is today’s received wisdom—split screens kill.
There was Kerry looking calm, making his points. And there was Bush, twitching, slouching, rapidly blinking as he listened. “I think that the split screen did damage to Bush,” says Costas Panagopoulos, executive director of the Political Campaign Management program at New York University. “At times he had facial expressions and reactions that visually showed that he was annoyed, irritated, aggravated. And I think stylistically it made him look less presidential and less in command of the situation. He seemed to be reacting much more viscerally.”
That Bush tends to carry himself that way shouldn’t be news to Bush masterminds Karen Hughes or Karl Rove. According to a prescient article by James Fallows in the July-August Atlantic Monthly, Bush’s Texas henchmen were able to rule out split screens and reaction shots in his last gubernatorial debate. Furthermore, reporters weren’t allowed in the debate room, and had to cover the proceedings through a television monitor. “Because the press was upstairs, they didn’t realize how aggressive he was on the stage,” Bush’s opponent, Garry Mauro, told Fallows. “Pulling the sleeve of the moderator, staring or winking at Laura in the crowd.”
Fallows quotes Mauro as saying that onstage, but off camera, “there was that Bush smirk, rolling his eyes, all of which Bush is very good at.”
When the Bush and Kerry camps hammered out the details of the debate, they tried to pull a similar stunt. They agreed that split screens, cutaways, and reaction shots would not be on the table. One problem: The Bush and Kerry camps don’t get to decide what shots get used. The networks do.
“A candidate wouldn’t want a split screen because it would cause him to have to be alert every second,” says Jill Geisler, who worked as a broadcast news director for 20 years, and now is on the faculty at the Poynter Institute. “A split screen or cutaway says that you are in the spotlight at all times. All the networks are doing is providing the same field of vision that a person in the same room would have. But you have to have your guard up.”
Bush seemed virtually unaware of the camera. He contorted his face while Kerry replied to some of his points. Even when the camera was actually on Bush, at times he seemed to hunch over the lectern as if hectoring the audience. Kerry, by contrast, seemed very aware of the camera. He scribbled notes or simply looked up as Bush spoke. Perhaps his only stylistic mistakes were smiling at some of Bush’s answers and nodding his head in eagerness to respond.
Other factors that were predicted to be advantages for Bush seemed instead to work against him. In 2000, Bush’s team was able to win the low-expectations game. But this year the jig was up—correspondents seemed to be snickering while reporting that Bush strategist Matthew Dowd called Kerry the best debater ever to run for president, “the best debater since Cicero.”
Also, the Republicans hoped the debate’s timing lights would put Kerry’s penchant for long wind on full blast. But Kerry displayed Parcells-like clock management skills. Bush, meanwhile, seemed to be struggling to fill up his allotted time. Likewise, the Bush team got the podiums arranged in way that supposedly wouldn’t show the height difference between the opponents. But even this didn’t work so well.
“I did think that it was interesting that, in an effort to make the two men appear of similar height, you still had the president appearing closer to his lectern,” says Geisler. “Therefore the little light box seemed closer to his face. There’s some thought that when we watch TV, we look at the eyes. But if I see the lights, I’m probably more likely to watch them. In the president’s case we were able to see that, in several incidences, he was glancing down at the lights.”
Still, Bush’s reaction shots seemed to be the dagger in last night’s debate. The Democratic National Committee immediately seized on them, placing a video of them on their website under the banner “Faces of Frustration.” Did Bush’s camp not know that the networks would ignore the agreement to not use split screens?
Calls to the Bush camp weren’t returned by press time. But Panagopoulos doubts that Rove and company were caught unawares. “I’m sure that both candidates were thoroughly prepared for this debate,” says Panagopoulos. “I think if the Bush team didn’t even consider the possibility that he could be on at all times, they did the president a huge disservice. But there’s only so much a candidate’s adviser can do. At the end of the day, it’s up to the candidate.”