by Jerry Weissman
Twelve years ago, during the presidential election that pitted Vice President Al Gore against then Texas Governor George W. Bush, the candidates met in three debates, just as President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney are doing this year. One dynamic from the 2000 campaign could carry forward to this year: dramatic reversals in presentation style. Just as Mr. Obama made a significant shift from his listless demeanor in the first debate to what Maureen Dowd called an “alpha tone” in his second, Al Gore made significant shifts in his style between his debates.
In the first contest, Mr. Gore, who was expected to dominate the notoriously language-challenged Mr. Bush, came out roaring like a lion. His statements and rebuttals were filled with aggressive and divisive words like “wrong,” “not,” “differences,” “mistake,” and “opposite.” His manner was also combative, continually punctuated by condescending sighs, derisive head-shaking, scornful frowns, and disdainful eye-rolling.
The arrogant behavior immediately boomeranged. Television broadcasters had a camera isolated on Mr. Gore for reaction shots. Their news directors took the output of this camera and edited his expressions into a rapid-cut sequence that they ran in their local and national broadcasts repeatedly. Public and media criticism rained down on the vice president.
In response, Mr. Gore made a sharp about face in the second debate and came out like a lamb. During the 90- minute event, he expressed agreement with his opponent seven times—earning him further public criticism. So Mr. Gore reversed field again and swung back to his aggressive ways in the third debate.
At one point, moderator, Jim Lehrer of the PBS News Hour, who also moderated the first Obama-Romney debate, asked Mr. Bush the same question he would later ask Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney:
I’d like to know how you see the differences between the two of youMr. Bush rose from his seat and began to address his answer to the town-hall audience
Well, the difference is that I can get it done. That I can get something positive done on behalf of the people. That’s what the question in this campaign is about...As he continued his answer, Al Gore stood up, and started to walk across the stage, directly toward his opponent, almost menacingly. Unaware of Mr. Gore’s move, Mr. Bush continued:
…It’s not only what’s your philosophy and what’s your position on issues, but can you get things done?
Then, Mr. Bush turned back to the audience and said:
And I believe I can.
The audience titters gave way to laughter. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll about the effects of the debate on public opinion gave George W. Bush a seven point advantage over Al Gore. Mr. Gore compensated for his initial aggressive behavior by being passive, and then he overcompensated for being passive by being even more aggressive. Mr. Obama compensated for his initial passive behavior by being aggressive.
What will we he do tonight?