The Best Debate since Kennedy-Nixon

The First Debate – Rick Warren with Obama and McCain

OK, it wasn’t a debate, it was better! It was historic and was what a debate should actually be – insightful, candid, conversational – where we can see the character and personality of the candidates as well as their views. And this will change the Presidential election.

When Rick Warren had a “conversation” with both Barack Obama and John McCain in his Civil Forum tonight, he set a precedent. I hope the national debate forum will change to model what we saw tonight.

All three came away winners – though perhaps Warren won the most, with McCain reestablishing himself in what is now a horse race for the Presidency. So much to say, but in a nutshell:

Rick Warren:

On the cover of Time this week, on Larry King Live on Monday – what will stop him from continuing to grow in impact and in creating world change on a high level. One of the greatest communicators in person (he was one of my Top Ten Communicators of 2006 – second only to Obama!) and in print (best selling non-fiction book of all time, except for the Bible), he continued his streak. Confident and appropriate, he had great questions, and was even-handed, friendly and in control. Amazing.


Perhaps the best contrast of Obama and McCain (amplified in the following commentary) is to view these two clips, where Rick Warren gives exactly the same question on abortion to the two of them:

Obama gives his 1′ 20″ answer, which actually went on longer.

McCain gives a 30″ answer, which includes the applause.

Barack Obama:

Thoughtful, measured, knowledgeable and confident. No doubt a leader. He did away with the criticisms of not being a Christian, and not being humble. Nuanced to the max – Obama qualifies and finally gets to the point, and takes a stand when he has to. He is a GREAT communicator, and it is his communications that got him there. (He was the top communicator in my Top Ten of 2006.) He communicates as a leader.

But he didn’t exude emotion, and actually had a couple of behavioral flaws – Obama has about 3 or 4 ‘Ums” and “ahs” per minute. Thoughtful perhaps, but evidence of caution and need to say the “right” thing. He also has a severe head tilt to the right and looks down to the right – habits that are not straightforward, nor appealing. (Of course all this is at the unconscious level, but it counts.)

John McCain

Decisive, vital and energetic. A turnaround for McCain, as I was about to blog on how the race was pretty much over because Obama was so much better communicating than McCain. But not any more. McCain showed that he will be a contender – look to the Presidential Debates to perhaps make the big difference.

McCain connected emotionally with the audience, and it’s perhaps this factor alone (plus energy) that made the difference. He was humorous, specific and quick with answers, thus decisive (see his answer to the abortion question), and he didn’t have any hesitations. No “ums” or “ahs” as if he had to think, and thus confident in his answers. More importantly he used stories continuously – and good ones at that.

This now will be an interesting election from a communications point of view. There is no question that Obama will appeal to the younger, and McCain will resonate to the older. David Gergen made a great comment on whether we want a leader who is more nuanced and a conciliator (Obama) than one who is more decisive and specific (McCain).

We will see, and now the manner in which Obama and McCain communicate their vision will determine the ultimate outcome.

The Presidential Debates and Senator Thompson

The 2008 race for the Presidency started early, and so far the debates have not done too much. So many candidates, so much clatter, so little distinction. But today’s debate had something riding on it – would Senator Fred Thompson’s late and highly anticipated entry in the race create a … Continue reading