Life in the Shallow End

I don't mean to be superficial, but let's face it, I am. And there's nothing like a presidential debate to remind me how deeply superficial. It's not that I don't hear what the candidates are saying, but I always begin by noticing what they're wearing, and whose shirt looks better, and of course, whose tie. I spent a great deal of the first debate upset about the way Obama's shirt fit too loosely around his neck, and I had quite a lot of fantasies about how to help him in this area. If I were married to him I assure you he never would have left the house in that shirt.

By the time tonight's debate was minutes old, I had decided that Obama had won. His shirt looked great, and his suit fit beautifully. This seemed important. He sat down in a chair that was basically unsittable and he looked fantastic. He loped around the stage, holding the microphone as if he'd been born with a silver one in his hand. Compare that to McCain: his jacket fit oddly and his way-too-wide tie was poking out of the bottom. He was unhealthy -- overweight and out-of-breath, almost gasping for air every five or six words. And he looked so stumpy and awkward walking around the stage that I couldn't imagine why he'd ever thought a Town Hall format would be good for him.

I feel a little guilty about all these shallow criteria, but not too guilty, because in some horrible way, these debates are really not about substance but trivia. We have been with these guys a long time, and we now know what they're going to say and how they're going to say it. McCain repeats himself way worse than Obama -- "my friends," "earmarks," etc. -- but both of them are guys we've been married to for a long time, and we know their stories. It's true I had no idea that McCain learned everything he knew from a chief petty officer, but that was about the extent of the surprises he had in store for me after all these years together, and in any case, it was clearly bullshit.

But the point I'm leading up to is that both candidates are good at what debates are now about -- not making a mistake. It's amazing that they spend ninety minutes on a stage discussing the burning issues of our time, and in the end it can boil down to a slip of the tongue, a moment that's perceived as over the line, a factual mistake that can be made into a "gotcha" moment.

McCain came close to making a mistake, and there will be a big deal made over his referring to Obama as "that one" because it was patronizing and revealing. But in the end that moment will seem like yet another misguided attempt at the sort of casual joke McCain fails to make work most of the time. If I were married to him, an unlikely scenario, we would probably have fought in the car on the way home tonight, because I told him a million times not to try to be funny, but he never listens to me.

And if I were married to Obama, another unlikely scenario but a far more attractive one, I would be driving home having a hard time not thinking about the curtains.