Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Listening with the Third Ear to the Democratic Candidates

I watched several of the “audience participation” YouTube questions and answers after the democratic presidential candidates’ debate on 7/23/07. Nothing substantial was said that hasn’t already been recited. The candidates have scripts for just about any question, so it’s the usual fertilizer.

Except in one situation where a Tuber unveiled that old management retreat chestnut, “Say something you like and something you don’t like about the person on your left.” The answers seemed less scripted than usual so even though they were politically meaningless, they showed up some revealing personality traits.

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

( question 36: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygaPwW-B2y4&mode=user&search= ).

Here, I “listen with the third ear” to their remarks.

Former Senator Mike Gravel: I like Chris Dodd. I knew his dad, I served with his dad. I do have a difference of opinion of where the money’s coming from…Follow the money to see who you are electing…

It’s hard to go first in this game because no context has been laid. The best Gravel can do is praise Dodd’s father, indicating how distant Gravel is in time and mentality from the other candidates. What does he dislike about Dodd? He doesn’t know Dodd. He is in his own world. Gravel generalizes to all the other candidates with a sweeping arm gesture. They, he implies, are corrupted by their campaign contributions, while I alone am not.

Since Gravel is most known for exposing the Nixon involvement in the Pentagon Papers case in 1971 and thereby helping to end the draft, it is perhaps not surprising that at 78 years old, he is now a conspiracy theorist himself. No doubt money does corrupt politics, but Gravel’s dark innuendos suggest only a broken flower container.

Senator Dodd: I like John Edwards and I have nothing negative to say. We’ve had enough negativity in politics. (Applause).

This perfunctory evasion denies the legitimacy of the game and indirectly, of Gravel’s remarks. Dodd has his helmet on and shield up at this point. Gravel praising his father put him in a shadow, and he is further annoyed by Gravel’s suggestion of corruption, also inappropriate, he thinks. Instead of dealing with Gravel’s remarks he expresses his unhappiness by denying “all negativity.” It’s a flat-footed response but it gets the monkey off his back without having to acknowledge his annoyance or think of anything clever to say.

Former Senator John Edwards: Um, I admire what Senator Clinton has done for America and what her husband did for America, um, but I’m not sure about that coat.

He accepts responsibility for answering the question and avoids a real criticism by making a light joke about her outfit. It’s hard to think fast on your feet, and Hilary did stand out like a Nemo among the sharks on stage, but that very fact made Edwards’ remark an implicit gender criticism, a surprisingly unenlightened reaction. His praise of Bill Clinton in his comment further emphasizes his discomfort about the idea of a woman president. He would no doubt deny that attitude, but that is the message he sent.

Senator Clinton: Yeah, John, it’s a good thing we’re ending soon. (To audience) …I mean (a vague upward gesture of the left hand), I admire uh, and like very much, uh, Barack, (a half head turn in his direction without looking at him ) as I do with all the candidates here. What you’ve seen tonight is how ready the Democrats are to lead…

Hillary’s jibe at Edwards’ remark was with smile and in a light tone, but did convey that the remark was annoying and off key. She makes a little joke of it, but clearly putting him down and reinforcing her image as “bristly.” In fact that putdown took so much mental energy out of her, she had to stall to remember which hand was her left and even Obama’s first name, and then she couldn’t issue a syntactically correct sentence.

That performance shows where her energies naturally flow and where her priorities are: self-defense of her own image before engagement in the ideas. Realizing perhaps that her sentence was garbled, her frustration increased further, so she lapsed into a slogan about being ready to lead, overtly refusing to play the game any more.

Even so, she managed to state again what was on her mind. “All the Democrats are ready to lead” means, from her point of view, that “Despite my neon coral outfit, I am fully equal to any of these dark-suited Democratic men here and just as ready to lead.” She is still bristling about the jacket remark. Her annoyance is well justified but she can’t let it go. Her focus remains deeply egocentric and that trips her up.

Senator Obama: I actually like Hillary’s jacket. I don’t know what’s wrong with it. (Turning…) I like the fact that Bill Richardson has devoted his life to public service. …I don’t like the fact that he likes the Yankees or the Red Sox but (gesturing to himself with both hands) not apparently the White Sox and we’re having a tough time this year.

AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain

Obama also picked up on the inappropriateness of Edwards’ jacket remark, and on Hillary’s anger over it. Obama is the consummate listener. I don’t think he is piling on about the jacket, but genuinely trying to give her some support. His subtext is “Don’t pay any attention to him, Hillary; you’re fine.” In an even quieter subtext he says, “And if you get there before I do, don’t forget who your friends are.” He is a masterful communicator.

Turning to Richardson, Obama grapples with the race issue by focusing on the colors of people’s socks. He is aware that he and Richardson are the only “ethnic” candidates so he subconsciously addresses that with a color theme disguised as baseball talk. But he doesn’t want to be an “ethnic” candidate, but rather (with big hand gesture) a white (e.g., non-ethnic) candidate.

Further, he notes that he is having a tough time this year walking the racial tightrope and trying to rise above his color. This is a fair concern for his campaign. It is a little disappointing, but understandable, that he sizes up Richardson first and foremost as an ethnic category.

Governor Richardson: I love all the candidates here and I think they would all do great … as my vice president. The only negative thing about Joe Biden… We disagree on Iraq, very strongly, on Darfur, but this man has devoted his whole life to public service… and he will make an excellent Secretary of State for me (laughs).

Richardson begins by playing the jester but then seems to realize that is not the impression he wants to leave, as his fractured sentence structure shows him trying to change course. But he overshoots and lands on the negative before he realizes that he didn’t say anything positive yet, so he backs up and heaps considerable praise, which seems genuine enough, on Biden (who soaks it up). Then, realizing he has been perhaps too effusive in his praise, Richardson self-corrects again and finishes with a joke.

The joke is, “We all know that there is no chance that I will win the nomination, so that’s just a joke.” What’s his game then? Richardson’s detailed listing of Biden’s achievements is a clear demonstration of how he himself would like to be assessed, since Richardson also has a distinguished record of service, in congress, as governor, at the UN, and as a Cabinet member. So what is he trying to say? Simply, “Hey everybody, I’m running for Secretary of State over here!”

I can’t tell just how unconscious Richardson’s subliminal message was. It is delivered so naturally and transparently that he must have given the matter of his status in the campaign considerable thought before last night, so maybe his message was really more, cagey than subconscious.

Also notice how tough it is for Richardson to think on his feet. His words get ahead of his self-monitoring so he is always in a self-correct mode, but in the end, he does finish the dance on the right foot. Awkward though it seems, it gets the job done and at least it is real-time thinking, not Kabuki theater.

Senator Biden: Turning to Cucinich: I don’t like a damn thing about him! No, I’m only kidding, only kidding. Dennis and I have been friends for 25 years (no pause, baring teeth, not a smile), I think this is a ridiculous exercise. Dennis, the thing I like about, the best about you is your wife (smirk).

It sounds like Biden really has been friends with Cucinich for a long time. He would have to be, to get away with such nasty remarks. Biden is angry at having to play the game, even though he has had over three minutes to prepare an answer. This tells me that he does not think well on his feet, is frustrated at being required to do so, and he gets angry when he is frustrated.

Instead of explaining why the game is silly, or refusing it in a more subtle way, as Edwards and Clinton did, or sublimating his remarks to a subterranean message the way Obama and Richardson did, Biden just lashes out personally at his purported friend. He starts with the not-funny joke that he doesn’t like a damn thing about Cucinich, then follows with a left handed compliment “Your wife is nice, but you stink.”

I don’t think Biden dislikes Cucinich at all. The frightening part of his reaction is the primitive defense mechanism of displacement, unconsciously kicking his friend instead of acknowledging that his anger is at the game, and that the game makes him angry because he is not very good at it. That’s scary stuff and frightening to see in a presidential candidate.

(Announcer: Congressman Cucinich, please talk about Senator Gravel).

Congressman Cucinich: Hey wait a minute! He talked about my wife! (Laughter). You notice what CNN did, they didn’t put anyone to the left of me. Think about it… (Laughter). But there’s no one more mainstream on the war than I am… But now, about Senator Gravel. Didn’t he show great courage during the Vietnam War? …I’m proud that he’s up here. Thank you Senator Gravel.

Cucinich is no milquetoast. He acknowledges Biden’s aggression and loudly points it out for the audience to see. All under cover of a laugh, to be sure, but his message is “Joe can’t help himself. I know he doesn’t mean it personally and I see that and don’t hold it against him.” Actually he names CNN rather than Biden as the aggressor: “You notice what CNN did…” so he really does not want to acknowledge the intensity of Biden’s displaced aggression. Then he suggests that he would like to punch back at Biden, but since he is at the end of the line, “there is nobody left” to punch at. That is a very skillful, self-effacing joke, in a difficult situation, that manages to defuse the mood even while expressing his own anger at Biden’s outburst. Very impressive real-time thinking.

Cucinich follows up by reinforcing his primary issue, ending the war, then gives some genuine praise to Senator Gravel, thanking him for his important historic role. Not only does this further demonstrate Cucinich’s generosity, but at the same time takes care of a difficult situation: how to say what he likes about someone who is not really in touch with any issues Cucinich cares about. Again a very nimble and effective performance.

Thus the candidates are psyched out. Isn’t it amazing how much more we say than we say?

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