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Friday Night Live in Oxford

10/30/2008 05:12 am 05:12:02 | Updated May 25, 2011

The scene -- any scene -- always looks different from the inside than it does from the outside. The riotous crowd that fills the television screen scarcely fills the street when you're in the middle of it on the ground. It's a different world beyond the frame.

The same is true about Friday night's presidential debate in Oxford, Mississippi. Here's how it looked to me from my seat inside the hall. Senator McCain never once looked directly at Senator Obama or addressed him directly, despite moderator Jim Lehrer's best efforts -- and he did make an effort. McCain's eyes were all the time focused on his notes or on Jim Lehrer or at a television camera out there in the middle distance -- anywhere but on Obama.

Who knows why? Maybe his handlers thought if he didn't look at Obama, that would somehow diminish his considerably younger opponent in the eyes of the voter. Whatever they thought, inside the hall it looked awkward and unnatural. It seemed as if the Senator was afraid he might lose his place, his pace, or stray from his talking points. That's not the impression a candidate wants to give.

It takes one person to give a speech but two people to have a discussion. Lehrer tried to get one started, and several times Obama did address McCain directly. McCain acted as if he hadn't noticed. Everybody else did, though. If McCain were the Titanic and Obama the iceberg, the Titanic sailed loftily by, barely noticing that menacing chunk of ice off the starboard bow. But the ice was still there even if the captain didn't see it. The plutocrats on board would have arrived safely in New York and the world would have been spared a host of second-rate plays and movies.

Since the primary concern of both candidates in the debate was not to screw up, that was just fine. Just not screwing up, however, doesn't make for a very exciting debate. It would have been a lot more exciting had the Titanic struck the iceberg and sank. Or vice versa.

That was my strongest impression of the debate. Nobody went down, nobody screwed up in a major way, and McCain wouldn't look at Obama. A lot of people leaving the debate felt the same way. The crowd was subdued. There were no high fives. (The high fives were confined to the candidates' handlers in the spin room, where there were only victors.)

As we were leaving the Gertrude Hall Center, a pretty Ole Miss co-ed said to no one in particular, "I don't know, I was just expecting more."

"You mean, 'Is that all there is'?" I asked her.

The older woman beside her explained, "Peggy Lee, honey."

"Mother, I know who Peggy Lee is," the girl replied in that tone familiar to parents everywhere. "Yes," she said, turning to me, "something like that, I suppose."

Admittedly, in a presidential debate it is hard to explain to a general audience, without putting them to sleep, how credit-default swaps and other highly sophisticated financial products with only a tenuous connection to reality led to billions in the pockets of a few, the collapse of the financial system, and your neighbor's losing his house or his job or both. Try to make all that clear in five or ten minutes of a ninety-minute debate that covers a host of other subjects. It's impossible, but anyone can understand that there are the victims (that would be us, the good guys), the predatory bad guys who fleeced us (that would be the rich Wall Street types), and that the victims are going to pay for the crime.

Likewise, it is impossible to explain the ethnic nightmares of the Georgians, the Russians, the South Ossetians and the Abkhazians in a sound bite. But we can easily understand that we and the Georgians play the good guys and the Russians and the KGB play the bad guys. We know that movie. A reasonably accurate account of what's actually happening on the ground and who did what to whom and why, with a little history of the nationalities in the Caucasus for flavor, is not easy to grasp, however, and will not keep most people riveted to their seats. So we resort to demagoguery. Slogans are always easier to remember than facts.

But here is a simple question that did not come up in Friday's debate, and that is amenable to a very simple answer. Do you believe the United States should forbid by law, as it does now, gays and lesbians from serving openly in the United States military? Do you believe gays and lesbians should be discriminated against by law? Does this conform to your idea of liberty and justice for all?

Where do you stand on this, sir? Do you believe gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military? Yes or no. A simple question, a simple answer.

Friday night was only the first act. Maybe in act two.