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If Smiles Mean Something: McCain vs Obama

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Elizabeth had never seen McCain on TV until last night.


"Oh my god, his smile!"


Yes. Painful. When McCain smiled during his speech in New Orleans (which he consistently mis-pronounced with four syllables) something strange happened. First of all it was clear that the script had a notation like: //SMILE HERE// so he manfully attempted to do so. That parting of the lips was supposed to be a smile? It actually looked like he was in pain.


I felt the pain--of seeing his smile--maybe the pain of his having to smile, maybe the pain of speaking before this small crowd. Maybe it was the pain of realization that the only "star" on the horizon for the Republicans was a brown man, Bobby Jindall, who had just introduced him, and he had to run against another one--a brown man--who was a good deal brighter than he was.


McCain, we should remember, was almost at the bottom of his class in the Navy.


What could you say about his speech? His arguments were the same arguments that Republicans have used for years to win elections: Democrats tax and spend, Democrats want government to decide for you--on health care, for example, for which McCain offers to remove employer tax incentives, so that everyone will have to buy their own health insurance: I'm sure the insurance companies love his plan. They won't have to bargain with big employers; they can just raise their rates, and cherry-pick all the way to the bank.


Government, McCain says, should leave people to do things on their own, creative Americans. Ironic, since he was speaking in New Orleans (it's pronounced N'Orlins, John), where the government had so completely fallen down on the job before, during and after Katrina.


But this article is also about style. McCain's style is short and choppy, like his hand movements and his stiff little waves. It's business-like, or boring. Short staccato sentences, little intonation, reading from--and mis-reading from--a script. I can imagine him as the CFO of a mid-sized corporation, reading out the accounts for the current quarter; that's about how exciting he is. He does not project, TV critics would say.


So, short of some Democratic calamity, he's going to be running against Obama. Barack Obama is a speaker with rolling sentences, with intensity, with occasional wit. It's no wonder that McCain was speaking to a small, rehearsed but not very spontaneous crowd, while Obama was speaking to 35,000 who went wild at almost every point in his peroration.


Obama's presence on stage is electrifying, clearly. And he builds up to multiple climaxes in which he has the crowd, and I suspect a good part of the TV audience, on the edges of their seats. He has presence, but he also projects thoughtfulness, and intellect. He does not draw the crowd down to some brainless common denominator, which was what the current President could sometimes do. He urges on his listeners to be the better part of themselves.


His argument against McCain is simple but effective: McCain is more of the same, Bush for a third term. Actually, I would argue that McCain is worse, at least in foreign policy: he's tried to confront Russia's Putin, whereas Bush has tried to placate him, and his talk of "more wars" is worrisome; it goes beyond Cheney's saber-rattling against Iran.


But again, this article is not so much about substance as about style. And especially about smiles. Obama's smile is quick, spontaneous, wide, generous and fun. It is a ray of sunshine, to use an overused cliché, but it fits.


Obama projects, big time. People call it charisma.


Elizabeth (who never liked either Bush) said of McCain, after the second of those painful smiles: "He'd even make me miss GW!"



I am a writer and retired college teacher. I taught college courses in Economics and Political Science (I've a Ph.D) and I've written as a free-lancer for various publications. I now write a website and a blog at (more...)

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It's interesting that you picked up on the smi... by Mike Folkerth on Thursday, Jun 5, 2008 at 9:55:34 AM
Who cares if Obama can smile?  They are both ... by Roger Thomas on Thursday, Jun 5, 2008 at 10:04:39 AM
Actually my guy, Dennis Kucinich, was as well. &nb... by Dennis Kaiser on Thursday, Jun 5, 2008 at 10:56:35 AM
I doubt if any candidate who seriously wants to ma... by Douglas Smyth on Thursday, Jun 5, 2008 at 10:30:54 AM
obama's a masterful speech giver, but what'... by Better World Order on Thursday, Jun 5, 2008 at 11:54:11 AM
There's a word for candidates who get on the w... by Rob Kall on Thursday, Jun 5, 2008 at 1:54:24 PM
I respectfully disagree about Ron Paul. He is seri... by Mike Folkerth on Thursday, Jun 5, 2008 at 12:52:18 PM
I thought the same thing as I watched him smile se... by Thomas Mc on Thursday, Jun 5, 2008 at 2:30:12 PM
It seems the Republicans were forced to concede th... by pft on Friday, Jun 6, 2008 at 2:27:50 AM
It seems the Republicans were forced to concede th... by pft on Friday, Jun 6, 2008 at 2:28:32 AM
Watching McCain was reassuring--how can a guy... by francine on Thursday, Jun 5, 2008 at 2:59:30 PM
I watched McCain's speech without the sound. He'... by Lover of Truth on Friday, Jun 6, 2008 at 1:19:01 PM