Back when I was young enough to think watching football was a perfectly splendid use to make of precious time, my favorite play was one in which the receiver would find a way to catch the long ball even though a defender matched him stride for stride down the field, and went up to fight for the ball with him, maybe even put a hand in his face–not to blind, rather to deflect a perfectly thrown bullet, and the defender actually would tip the ball–but the receiver would jump into the air and keep that ball alive and somehow… somehow… catch it and win the game. It was beautiful to behold.
Just such a contest I saw Tuesday night in the second presidential debate between Barack Obama and a tough-fighting, more-or-less fair-fighting, John McCain. Obama won this debate against strong opposition in a way that previous Democratic candidates seemed unable to do, by out-fighting tough opposition in football ballet. He won against a motivated opponent.
In one of the most fiercely contested debates I’ve seen, at last, it appears, talking heads see it my way. On PBS, that soft-spoken neocon sympathizer David Brooks owned up, if with a stutter. "I-I thought Obama won." On CNN, a panel that included esteemed moralist, Bill Bennett, the consensus was? Obama won. Even Bennett conceded as much.
Nobody I saw in post-debate analysis pretended this was a draw. What a relief. Long about 11 p.m. the first real poll results came in, a scientific sampling from CNN. Result? Obama 54, McCain 31. A helluva football game, I tell ya. Maybe the media’s been chastened for pretending the last two debates were draws, even when snap polling told all with eyes to see that Obama owned the first presidential and Joe Biden won the one and only vice-presidential debate.
And so the Demos stand at 3-0, based on polls, after three debates. OK, with an economy tanking, with two no-win wars going on and on and on… McCain long ago lost home field advantage. You could say he’s kicking into a perfect storm. Still, on Tuesday he took the fight to Obama. He was forthright, knowledgable and personable. True, he shied away from bringing up much anticipated snot-nosed personal attacks, except for a mean-spirited jab at Joe Biden’s hair transplants. Deduct points for deliberate cruelty–personal foul. Still, for the most part, McCain stuck to issues.
But so did Obama. Tall, elegant, graceful, in command of the facts, Obama literally towered over McCain. One could point to several places in which he won the day–when it came to Pakistan, tax plans, the American dream, public service and so on–but for me the coup de grace was in answer to the question, "What don’t you know?"
Obama seized the microphone, and the moment, and said, "My wife Michelle is there, and she can give you a much longer list…"
What a wonderful preface to the answer. I don’t even remember the rest, but then I don’t need to. Obama had the instinct to rise up, hand in the air, and tip, tip, keep his eye on the ball, keep it in play and haul it in by being himself–a genuinely good guy, one smart enough to know that ignorance, false pride and cruetly are our greatest weaknesses, and that owning up to what we don't know is our greatest virtue.
It’s self-awareness George W. Bush lacked in spades. McCain has such self-knowledge to a degree. That’s why the debate was interesting, and why Americans will come out the winner no matter who wins the next election. At this point, Obama has the edge, mainly because he holds self-knowledge and generosity of spirit in to spare.
It’s called humility. But going there is the only avenue to true greatness. An ability to acknowledge that we know nothing in the larger perspective, and so we’d best find a way to overcome ego and work together and seek a new way to play the game, is what's been lacking historically. Pulling for the home team no matter the consequences is folly. Knowledge of what part of the home team is worth rooting for is key. That’s why I’m for Obama. And why, come to think of it, I mostly gave up watching football.