"That one!" Condescension and Contempt Redux

11/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the heat of the 1992 presidential campaign, during a town hall style debate, President George H. W. Bush looked at his wristwatch while he was being asked a question by a citizen. When he started to respond, his answer was not to the question asked, and so the questioner interrupted him. His misplaced answer appeared rude, if not condescending, to the woman who asked the question. Many political analysts attributed that wristwatch moment, replayed often on videotape, to the failure of George H. W. Bush's re-election campaign.

In the heat of the 2000 presidential campaign, during a town hall debate, Al Gore approached his opponent, then-Texas Governor George W. Bush, in what appeared to be a threatening move. Many political analysts pointed to that moment, frequently described as contemptuous and frequently replayed on videotape, as contributing to Al Gore's loss in an election that, as the incumbent vice president, he was favored to win handily.

Last night, during a town hall presidential debate, John McCain got a question from a citizen who asked, "Senators, through this economic crisis, most of the people that I know have had a difficult time. And through this bailout package, I was wondering what it is that's going to actually help those people out." In his response, John McCain said, "...the match that lit this fire was Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. I'll bet you, you may never even have heard of them before this crisis." Such an answer to someone who was concerned enough about the economy to ask about it, appeared to be condescending.

Later on in the same debate, after Barack Obama charged that his opponent favored oil companies, John McCain brought up a Senate bill and described it as, "loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies, and it was sponsored by Bush and Cheney. You know who voted for it? You might never know." And then McCain gestured toward his opponent without looking at him, and said, contemptuously, "That one."

Recently, scientists have discovered a set of brain cells called "mirror neurons" that instinctively connect humans via their emotions. Daniel Goleman, the author of the bestselling, Emotional Intelligence, subsequently followed up with another book, Social Intelligence, in which he wrote of mirror neurons, "We are wired to connect. ... That neural bridge lets us affect the brain - and so the body - of everyone we interact with, just as they do us."

How will the electorate interact with -- and react to -- John McCain?