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Amb. Richard C. Holbrooke Headshot

Calm, Methodical Obama vs. Angry, Ungracious McCain

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Friday's unique free-form debate format offered the best insights so far into the vast differences, values and style of Barack Obama and John McCain, and how they would approach the challenges that only a president can decide. It was the stunning contrast in personal behavior, not their answers, that was most revealing.

Given the time spent on the economic crisis, Jim Lehrer had time for only five "lead" questions on national security--on Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, and homeland security. Other major issues will have to await later debates. But there was enough time for many intense and revealing exchanges. With a command of both the facts and the underlying issues, and a reassuring manner, Obama convincingly passed the key test of the debate--is he qualified to be Commander-in-Chief? But the real insights came in the revelations about the way each man thinks under pressure, and the way they interacted.

First, note a recurring pattern: With the exception of Iraq, where the disagreement began with Obama's opening sentence, Obama usually began by laying out broad themes, often mentioning instances of agreement with McCain--frequently using phrases like "John is absolutely right"--before going on to stress their differences. This is unusual, and part of what makes Obama a unique leader; I do not recall any previous major party candidate in a debate volunteering so many instances of common ground with his opponent. McCain's response struck me as odd and even ungracious; he has often proclaimed he would work across the partisan divide, but he undermined his own claim by completely ignoring Obama and his comments. Instead, he attacked Obama repeatedly, using phrases such as "Senator Obama just doesn't understand. . ." at least ten times.

The manner in which each man approached problems was strikingly different. McCain understandably emphasized his own personal experiences, but almost never made clear what he thought was the larger purpose of policy. Each problem was treated on its own, and McCain's proposed policies were invariably confrontational. John McCain's world focuses almost entirely on threats. Obama usually agreed with McCain on the nature of these threats, but his proposals for action were more insightful, sophisticated, and comprehensive, and, unlike McCain's, included the use of diplomatic and economic and moral power.

These striking differences were not simply debate tactics; they highlighted differences between the two men that are in their DNA. One is the product of the brawling traditions of the United States Navy, and survival under unimaginable conditions in a Hanoi prison. John McCain has prevailed in life not by seeking common ground (ironically, the most notable exception was his historic voyages of forgiveness to Vietnam). What has kept him energized (and alive) is his enormously combative style, which he proudly calls "maverick," and his quick, sometimes pre-emptive attacks on opponents. It is not a criticism to say that he is a gambler; he said so himself in his memoirs and in the debate.

Although Barack Obama articulates his positions in a calm, methodical, and understated way, he is clearly just as tough as McCain, or he would never have come this far in life, against unbelievable odds. But he thinks about how to solve problems in a manner much more conducive to successful governance than McCain. While he made clear he is ready to use military force if necessary, his life and career embodies the search for common ground between peoples of different backgrounds, different races, different points of view. During the debate he often emphasized the non-military aspects of American power--including diplomacy backed by American muscle, the restoration of respect for the nation, and the direct link between America's economic strength and its national security.

Astonishingly, McCain had virtually nothing to say on any of these issues--yet these are the tools that must be precisely balanced and deployed with skill if the nation is to regain its leadership position in the world.

This difference was reinforced by the much-noted failure of McCain to look in Obama's direction or address him directly during the debate, and by the grim looks that left many viewers with the impression McCain was just plain angry.

The overall effect was exactly the opposite of what McCain hoped to achieve: Obama showed that he could handle the frontal assaults of an aggressive and seasoned senator-war hero in the very area McCain was perceived to be strongest. Obama offered the larger vision for the nation--and a reassuring sense he would approach issues with the seriousness they required. The gambling, brawling style of John McCain has its attractive side to Americans, but it is not what we need in the White House in these troubled times.