If all the world’s a stage, the same holds true for presidential debates; and in some ways the performances from last night’s players, President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, matter just as much as the policies.
James Lipton, host of Bravo’s Inside the Actor’s Studio, went inside the Hardball studio Tuesday to dissect the elements of stagecraft in Monday’s grand finale to the debate season.
When thinking about Romney’s performance, the enduring image is one of an uncomfortable man, shifting in his seat, laughing awkwardly, and yes, sweating. Romney’s perspiration, while perfectly normal, unfortunately brought to mind images of Richard Nixon sweating out the first debate against John F. Kennedy, or of the fictional TV reporter Aaron Altman delivering a broadcast while soaking through his shirt in the 1987 film, Broadcast News.
Albert Brooks, the actor who played Altman in the film, even tweeted about the similarity, saying, “If Romney sweats anymore I get a royalty.”
As Lipton sees it, Romney’s sweating has a simple explanation: stage fright.
“Stage fright exists for politicians, and it certainly exists for actors,” said Lipton. “I think we saw a little of that last night. And the reason was that he was on unfamiliar terrain… He had memorized some bullet points, and that’s what he was delivering.”
Romney’s lack of foreign policy experience could certainly have jolted his nerves pre-debate, especially since he was going up against a president with four years of experience and legitimate foreign policy achievements under his belt. Obama, by contrast, was calm and confident as he slapped down Romney for what he saw as old-school policy positions.
“A few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest threat facing America, you said Russia; not al-Qaeda, you said Russia.” charged Obama. “And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
Lipton was also struck by how retro Romney appeared, noting that the GOPer went back to 1916 for his military policy, to the 1920s for his economic policy, to the 1950s for his social policies, and to the 1980s for his Cold War politics. “He comes off last night,” said Lipton, “as something of a Luddite.”
Policies aside, Obama’s performance also benefitted greatly from the staging of the debate, which was set around a table and free from what Hardball host Chris Matthews referred to as West Side Story choreography, where the candidates circle each other like the Sharks and the Jets.
Lipton agreed, noting that the setup made the debate seem more like a conversation, and less like a battlefield.
“Once upon a time, politics was civil,” said Lipton. “It is no longer. This helped last night.”