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By Kathy Klotz on Jul 26th, 2007 | In NewCommentary, On Politics
As pundits rightly recognize, The YouTube Democratic presidential debate on Monday, July 23rd was important for a number of reasons. It was an experimental format. The use of new media expanded participation in the form of questions from a wider cross-section of America, including younger voters who finally see candidates engaging them with conversational tools that speak to their generation. If this debate did nothing else but widen participation and interest in the political process among younger voters, than it added value.
However, one of the most important elements of this debate was levity and I take levity very seriously. There was levity in the way questions were asked, in the interchange with Anderson Cooper, in candidates answers, and in ways the candidates often interacted with each other. Of course, questions were often wrapped in silly preludes a fact that primed the levity pump. Despite the goofy nature of some of the video questions, however, many of the issues raised were quite (and appropriately) serious.
Precisely because this format was more experimental, the flow was more organic than in the June New Hampshire Democratic presidential debate. Sure, candidates still evaded direct answers at times and fell back on talking points when pressed, yet, this more fluid format created moments of surprise, humor, personal emotion, and a few instances where debaters were caught off-guard. It is in these rare, relaxed and even light moments that we see the more human side of candidates even if only for a short time.
Levity benefits candidates, voters and CNN. Levity is about more than just entertainment, although there’s something to be said for that, too. For all the talk of citizen journalism, CNN wasn’t ready to yield control CNN moderated the format, chose the videos, and even erred perhaps a bit on the side of entertainment to attract younger viewers to the debates and, of course, to CNN. Even straight-laced Anderson Cooper, CNN’s moderating journalist, got in on the funny act because the format made it easy to do so. Good for you, Anderson. You and CNN needed it. So did the debate.
Levity provides voters with opportunities to see more “real” sides of candidates their guffaws, their humor and, yes, even their ability to laugh at themselves, at the things we laugh at, and at each other. Humor makes candidates likeable and that can translate into political capital at the polls. We also love when they laugh at the same things we do it validates us, our opinions, and makes candidates appear to be “one of us.” Policies and platforms aside, many of us either like a candidate or not based on how they come across.
Levity enables voters to evaluate the whole person not just a talking head, or data sheet of ideologies. At the end of the day, we’re voting for a person, and a personality is part of the package. How do they handle the stress of an unanticipated question, how do they handle rebuttals, how do they handle the tough questions? Are they evasive, to the point, or are they pedantic and rambling (think 2004 Democratic presidential candidate)? It matters.
Comedian Al Franken, who has written for Gore and Hillary Clinton, put it this way: “Americans don’t want their President or senators to be the funniest person in the world. They just want to see that their President has a sense of humor and is a human being.” Humor is about being someone voters can relate to, and lightening up can help.
While too much humor is distracting, an overly serious candidate alienates viewers. Al Gore could have used this advice during the 2000 debate debacle (debate-gate) where he sighed, walked over to Bush while Bush was talking, and rolled his eyes. It was THAT bad. Where were you on that one, Franken?! Earlier this year, one pundit noted after Gore’s receipt of an Oscar for his documentary, Inconvenient Truth,“it’s the first time that a statue has received a statue. Ouch. Still, levity works because it contains elements of truth, no matter how painful. And truth is a virtue voters don’t often see in politicians.
Below are some of my favorite funny highlights from Monday’s debate:
* Edwards comment on Clinton’s pink jacket (catty, funny, and innocuous nice!), “I like Hillary, but I’m just not sure about that jacket!
* Kucinich’s comment that it was appropriate that there was no candidate to the left of him onstage and Anderson Cooper’s great comeback that it would be hard to find somebody that far left. Touch, Anderson.
* Biden commented that the best thing about Kucinich was his wife (I saw her as the camera panned. He wasn’t kidding. She’s pretty and towers over her husband, as I noticed at the end of the debate when she stood next to him. That’s not hard to do).
* The question submitted by two hillbilly-looking comedians from Tennessee on whether Al Gore’s constant media attention caused hurt feelings among the candidates and Biden’s repartee to the silly video, “I think Tennessee just got its feelings hurt.
* The silly “snowman” asking a serious question on global warming
* The singing, guitar-playing user that asked about all the taxes he’s saddled with even on his guitar.
* Hillary responded to a question on the Bush and Clinton dynasties by saying “Yes, I agree, Bush should never have been elected. No mention of Bill.
* The stunned, deer-in-headlights look on all the candidates faces when asked if they arrived at the event via private jets. Seriously busted, the candidates looked at each other as if to say, “You go first! While this levity was more incriminating than helpful to the candidates, it spoke volumes to the voters and the point was made.
Yet, despite important and beneficial levity surrounding some important questions, body language and poise still matter especially on TV. Didn’t we learn that in school watching old videos of the 1960 debate between Nixon and Kennedy?
Someone forgot to tell Mike Gravel, former Senator of Alaska. Despite some right-on-the-money ideas and points (he is a smart, experienced guy), Gravel knows only one tone: kooky, angry guy rant. He’s the loose-canon, old uncle I love inviting to Thanksgiving to keep things interesting. I want this guy at my party, but not as head of my Democratic Party. Some righteous indignation works here and there for effect, but sparingly. He didn’t smile much or engage in light-hearted banter. Some light-hearted, pre-emptive self-mockery would have helped a bit only if he had some variety in his tonality, and smiled more instead of using the same angry tone for every response.
Still, in general, a bit of pre-emptive self-mockery on the small things can help. By using this strategy, you’re saying you can laugh at yourself on the obvious physical or stylistic idiosyncrasies (height, rambling, goofy looks). Self-effacing humor in small amounts says, “Ok, we dealt with the elephant in the room, now we can move on to the serious issues.” Levity makes truth easier to talk about, and candidates and voters win when this happens.
Thus, humor matters for political news, too. According to studies conducted by Pew Research, comedy shows, including The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, are increasingly being cited as primary and preferred sources of political news among 18-34 year olds.
As the great satirist of the early 20th century, Will Rogers, said, “The times are changing when we take our political comedians seriously and our politicians less so. He was right.
Most politicians today could take a few cues from Jon Stewart on how to reach voters with truth and humor.