McCain and Pastor Rick Warren

I didn't see Barack Obama's session with Rick Warren. Hey, I'm in China. Just now I saw that John McCain's session with Warren is being shown.

McCain looks comfortable and is doing well. How do I square saying this with my argument in this recent article that he is a poor public speaker who does not show up well in debates? Easy.

1) Although Obama and McCain appeared back to back, this was in no sense a debate. This was the Larry King show, minus the usual incisive follow-up. In 45 minutes or so I saw, Pastor Rick Warren did not once ask "what do you mean by?" or "but what about?" He served up topics and sat aside as the candidate gave his standard answers, which were subject to no examination.  OK: that's one approach.

It is an approach basically similar to the "Town Hall" meeting format, where average citizens present questions -- often more barbed than Warren's -- and then the politician says what he wants, usually without rebuttal or followup. As I pointed out in my article, this is the one form of spoken discourse that McCain enjoys and often does well at:

In these circumstances, McCain's tactics against Obama are obvious. He will ask for as many debates as he can, starting with informal town halls before either he or Obama is officially nominated. The informal setting shows him off to his best advantage, with the affable bantering that has long made him a favorite with the press.

2) The candidates did not have to perform under pressure, which is what makes face-to-face debates different from every other form of political discourse.

I mean, of course there is pressure in any campaign appearance. In this one, Obama faced the pressure of entering presumably hostile territory; McCain, of figuring out the right way to shore up his conservative support. But they did not have to deal directly with each other -- with challenges to their arguments, with taunts and repartee, even with the effects of body language and the knowledge that viewers were sizing them up side-by-side. Again as the article said:

We don't watch debates to learn what someone thinks about Social Security. We watch to see how the contenders look next to their opponents, how they react when challenged, how well or poorly they come up with the words we later see in print.

These are the things we didn't really see --at least about McCain, in the part I watched. Not even how well or poorly he comes up with words, since most of what he said was part of his standard repertoire.

3) If I were in the Obama campaign, I would ban all mention of points #1 and #2 and would instead stress as often as I could: Boy, now that we seem him in action, we have a sense of how good a debater this John McCain really is! Frankly, the best we can hope from the debate match-ups is to get out alive. Everybody knows that our guy is not at his best in debates. And with that charm and wit, there's no way McCain won't win over the crowd. Expectations for him have to be sky-high..... 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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