Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Missing Famous Town Hall Debate Moment

The most famous Town Hall debate moment, as far as I can tell, came from the first time the format was used; it was the woman who asked George H.W. Bush how the deficit affected him personally (Adam Serwer talked about it today, thus providing proof that it's famous).

But the other famous Town Hall debate moment should have been the startling one just four years ago, well into the age when you would think that nothing like this could happen unnoticed on TV with everyone watching. I've mentioned it before, but I bet you don't know what I'm talking about, do you? It's about John McCain.

Here's what happened:

The first question of the debate was asked by an older white guy named Alan who asked a general question about the economy -- nothing about his personal situation at all, just a general question about how the candidates would help the economy. Both candidates answer. The follow-up from the moderator, Tom Brokaw, asks the candidates for their choices for Treasury Secretary. So there's been a fair amount of talk since the first question. The second question, then, is asked by a young African American man, who asks how the "bailout package" -- TARP -- would actually help people. McCain launches into an answer on Freddie and Fannie, but eventually gets around to this:
So this rescue package means that we will stabilize markets, we will shore up these institutions. But it's not enough. That's why we're going to have to go out into the housing market and we're going to have to buy up these bad loans and we're going to have to stabilize home values, and that way, Americans, like Alan, can realize the American dream and stay in their home.
It was absolutely shocking, or at least I found it shocking (if you want a more complete retelling, I got my brother to write about it at the time in my pre-blogging days; the NYT transcript is here).

There's simply nothing at all in either question to indicate that "Alan" but not the black guy (Oliver) would want to "realize the American dream and stay in [his] home." Neither even asked about housing, much less talked about their own situations. And yet McCain, while looking at Oliver and answering his question, referred back to the white guy when he wanted to talk about the American dream and home ownership. (If you want to see it on the video, the question is at the 10:00 point and "Americans, like Alan" is at about the 12:00 mark -- more than nine minutes after Alan had sat down after asking his question). It's worth seeing; McCain begins by answering the question directly to Oliver, then starts moving around the debate area while he's talking generally about housing and attacking Obama, and then returns to speaking directly to Oliver when he gets to this bit (and gestures back to Alan; he's clearly not just confusing the names) -- there's really no other way to read it than that he's specifically telling this African American man that the American dream is the property of white guys.

Forget about what it says about John McCain; I'm still shocked, four years later, that the press didn't pick up on it. Did reporters notice and just not care? Did they not think it was significant? Did they not notice?

As I said, this really should be a famous debate moment.

(Updated to include that McCain was clearly not confusing the two names)


  1. Oh my goodness, that is scandalous. McCain mixed up the names "Alan" and "Oliver?" (Two names that despite having the same vowel-consonant-vowel-consonant pattern sound absolutely nothing alike.) How did the media miss that?

    And why didn't they use that as an sign—a clear and unmistakably obvious sign—that McCain wasn't presidential material. I mean, seriously, an old man in a high pressure situation mixed up the names of two strangers? Unforgivable. I too am shocked that four years later the press didn't pick up on it.

    I'm really glad you brought this important matter to our attention.

    1. He most certainly did not mix up the names. He gestured to the guy he was referring to by the correct name. Watch the video; I'll update above for further clarity.

    2. Okay, I'll admit that I was being overly snarky based solely on the description of the event. Now that I've watched the clip, though, I have to say that there is a reason no one noticed this: there's absolutely nothing controversial or even noteworthy about McCain looking directly at Oliver at referring to Alan (a stand-in for generic American homeowner).

      You're interpretation—"there's really no other way to read it than that he's specifically telling this African American man that the American dream is the property of white guys"—is not only insulting to the intelligence of your readers, but downright racist. There is no indication that McCain considered Oliver's skin color when he answered the question. But you sure did.

    3. There is no indication that McCain considered Oliver's skin color when he answered the question. But you sure did.

      I love this response! It is absolutely epitomizes the logic of today's right-wing logic. After JB shows that Joe's first response was completely wrong, rather than giving an alternative explanation for what McCain was thinking, Joe instead blithely accuses JB of racism, because JB knew that the 2nd questioner was black. In other words, "I don't know what McCain was thinking, but I do know that he is not a racist and that you are a racist."

      It's breathtaking, really.

    4. (should be: It is absolutely epitomizes the logic of today's right-wing.)

    5. It's the problem that arises when the pursuit of power is the only thing that matters.

      Guys like Arlen Specter were concerned with governance more specifically, which is why he promoted government programs that he thought would benefit the country. He really helped out medical research a lot, for example. Guys like Specter no longer have a place in the right-wing world.

    6. It's the problem that arises when the pursuit of power is the only thing that matters.

      Right, but the thing is that the system should punish this. If the system rewards transparent bullshit masquerading as righteousness as exemplified by Joe Carter, I think that we can all give up and go home.

  2. Considering that Alan was the first question of the night, and Oliver the second, wouldn't it be just as likely that McCain was trying to appeal to the audience by referring to the only other named member? If you're going to claim "there's really no other way to read it", I think you need a bit more substance.

    1. Why would he assume that the first guy, who had asked an unrelated question, was important to the second guy's question?

      Or to put it another way, if I ask a candidate about a problem, it is normal to consider that it is pertinent to my situation. That guy probably asked about mortgages because he had one. What reason would McCain have to assume he didn't?

    2. I was looking at it in terms of connecting with the crowd. It's the second question of the night, and McCain has been talking directly to Oliver for a while. I don't think it's a stretch that, in the process of panning out to the crowd, that McCain repeats the only other name he's heard so far. I'm just saying, without supporting evidence, this instance doesn't seem that compelling. This seems as likely to be public speaking 101.

    3. If you're connecting to the crowd, then you reach out to the crowd, and say something like, "all of you here with mortgages...."

      This is a classic example of unconscious racism, BTW, which is probably why JB flagged it. There's a whole body of research on this kind of thing.

    4. I guess maybe I'm missing something about this specific case. For what it's worth, I "catch" plenty of dog-whistle racism that has plagued the GOP for a while now. I'm just not seeing it here, despite it apparently being a classic example / no other way to read it. Maybe I just don't remember the 2008 election that well, but I don't see a theme repeating like I do when I look at somebody like Buchanan (or Romney w/ the poor).

    5. OK, maybe I'm not being clear. I don't think it was a deliberate dog whistle. I'm also, FWIW, not saying that it revealed McCain's true racist self -- I didn't call him a racist above.

      If I had to characterize it, I'd say it's a ethnicity-based gaffe, something like that. McCain is, presumably inadvertently, tapping into ethnic (or, if you like, race-based) stereotypes when he just assumes that the African American guy wouldn't be a homeowner and the Anglo guy would be. It seems pretty clear to me that presidential candidates shouldn't do that sort of thing, but I don't think it reveals some sort of truth about him any more than I think that George HW Bush was revealing that he truly didn't want to be president any more when he looked at his watch during a debate. People do stuff; what it says about them depends on patterns of actions over time, not single episodes.

      And just to be complete: I have called McCain a bigot, in the context of an outrageous thing he said about DADT a while ago, and I'm hardly a McCain fan on other groups entirely.

    6. Sorry to pile on, but Oliver, the black questioner, says "Most of the people I know have had a difficult time, how will the bailout package help them?" and McCain says a bunch of typical boilerplate stuff which is capped by the observation that the bailout package will help, as an example, folks (like the old white guy Alan) with their troubled mortgages.

      In order to conclude that McCain is racist, we must be certain of the following:

      1) The white oldster Alan has absolutely nothing in common with "the people Oliver knows",
      2) McCain was aware of this, and what's more, knew this in real time in an extemp debate moment, and
      3) McCain, knowing that Alan had nothing in common with "the people Oliver knows", purposely invokes the white Alan to somehow mock or be derisive to the black Oliver.

      Point 1 certainly might be true, but aren't we obliged, in polite society, to act as though it isn't? Saying that Alan and Oliver are different enough that you can't invoke one as an example of "people the other knows" says some really awful things about integration, beyond any individual's alleged racism, doesn't it?

      For points 2 or 3 - heck, even if McCain really were motivated by the racism you posit, there is simply no way that guy was lucid enough to come up with something like that in such an extemp setting.

    7. JB, I would be much more inclined to agree with your view were it not for the sequence of events. If this were the 10th question of the night, with many of the questions coming from minorities, and McCain reached back to name a previous white respondent, then I think maybe you have something. I just think there's a much simpler explanation in this case. At that point in the debate, two members of the audience have been mentioned. McCain was speaking directly to one of them, then referred to the other.

      It would seem further claims inferred from that should require more evidence...and at the very least, it's not as open/shut a case as you're making it out to be. At least not IMHO :)

      As for mentioning dog-whistle racism, that was a FWIW in terms of my sensitivity to it -- I like to think that I know it when I see/hear it. I wasn't saying you were accusing McCain of racism.

    8. @CSH: two things:

      1. "motivated by racism" is really quite far off from what JB was suggesting and said explicitly that he meant. Let this be a lesson to you in how easy it is to fall into lazy mendacity.

      2. It's the "Americans, like Alan ..." bit that makes me uncomfortable ... Makes me think of the incredibly common phenomenon of people asking people of Asian descent "where are you from?" and not accepting "Queens" or "Indianapolis" (in a completely standard regional American accent) as a proper answer, but repeating: "no, where are you really from?" I'm not saying that McCain was egregiously insulting the questioner, but I am saying that when you've encountered a lot of casual presuppositions that someone is not American based, as far as one can tell, on their not having primarily European ancestors, well -- you flinch easier when someone says to a POC "Americans, like that white guy."

      Does that seem reasonable to you?

    9. @the classicist - from the open:

      there's really no other way to read it than that he's (McCain's) specifically telling this African American man that the American dream is the property of white guys.

      Maybe "motivated by racism" is improper terminology; (I cop to that in pretty much every thread back here)! Which synonym for "racist" would better reflect the charge the bossman is making in the italicized passage above? If the answer is "none", well, back at ya with the mendacious charge.

      Also, I hate it when (conservatives, mostly) rebut charges like racism by saying they didn't mean to be (racist); these things are in the eye of the beholder, if you heard that, I take your point.

      Consider though: Oliver says to McCain, "A bunch of people I know are struggling, how will the bailout help them"? and McCain lists a boilerplate series of ways, concluding "Oh, and also the mortgage help like what I was talking about with Alan a minute ago".

      Is that racist denial of Oliver? Perhaps, and if you hear it, yes. OTOH, could McCain just be channeling a recent example as the "finishing touch" in the list of things that might look like help to the people Oliver knows?

      I respect the fact that you don't see it that way. Hopefully you can see that this alternative explanation is an equally valid way to explain McCain's motivations, and thus, what the blockquote at the top describes as a given is, in reality, anything but!

    10. One other thing, classicist, in the spirit of people hearing things...I brought up the (omitted by D. Bernstein) postscript to McCain's observation that Oliver had "probably never heard of Fannie and Freddie...", and the way I wrote it, it kind of seemed like a gotcha.

      Actually, the fact that McCain added "before this crisis" to my ear rebuts the racism charge as much as any other argument. In the full context, that statement makes it sound like McCain is characterizing himself as just another oldster politician, sympathizing with this young guy who is forced to find out about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac because they damn near destroyed the country, when obviously Oliver has a million better things to be worried about than the arcana of GSEs.

      In its entirety, that statement, to my ear, actually sounds like bonhomie from McCain to the African-American Oliver; YMMV and FWIW and all the rest.

    11. I agree that there's nothing like explicit or articulated racism -- and as far as I can see no one, JB included, claimed that there was. And of course I agree that it never would have occurred to McCain that there were any undertones or overtones to it! I imagine that like most people in this country he thinks it's awful to be racist, to act like a racist, or to say racist things. I also acknowledge that, much as it might be shocking on one set of interpretations, it's a subtle thing -- again, I don't think anyone is arguing otherwise. I don't think this exposes deep character flaws and I don't think anyone wants to make it out to be a thing that shows you what x is really like. And if I was watching the debate, I sure didn't notice it at the time, either. BUT that doesn't mean it can't make me cringe when I do notice it!

      Okay analogy: It's like when you go back and read The Maltese Falcon an you're like OH WHOA Spade is insulting Joel Cairo and the Fat Man (? the one played by Sydney Greenstreet) by implying that they're attracted to other men. And it's still not a huge part of your understanding of the book, but it's there once you've noticed it, and it leaves a foul taste in your mouth. And if I mention it to someone and they hadn't noticed, that makes sense too! A lot of people misunderstand the word "gunsel" as having something to do with guns, which makes a lot of sense in comtext because they're all holding their guns to each other. Even, apparently, people started using it to refer to gun-toting thugs after having misunderstood it in The Maltese Falcon, so that it developed that sense, and then it became even more natural to hear it that way in the movie. But that isn't what it means. And if and when you happen to notice that, you're going to cringe.

      I ask again -- does that make sense? Things that are totally in the background of the way something is presented, but if you notice a certain detail it stains the scene for you? I think it makes sense, but it's crazy how hard it is to say anything rational and helpful about this kind of thing.

    12. Yup, totally take your point. Agree that it is unfortunate that McCain used the "Americans, like Alan" phraseology, cause there's heavy freight in that kind of turn of phrase, even if McCain didn't put it there.

      I also completely agree with your last comment above. I like to close off these extended conversations with some sort of valedictory statement that sounds all conclusive to my ear (even if others are like, wtf?) I got nothing though.

    13. @CSH: I love your attempts to bring order to (of all things!) blog comment threads. Fits with the rest of your Plain Blog persona: a surprising combination of skeptical, spontaneous, and orderly. Which I guess is just to say that you are what used to be called a "temperamental conservative" ;)

  3. Suppose I had the good fortune to be at a big international political science conference, where I was chatting with a (white) colleague from say, Duke, who was expressing frustration at new, onerous policies from the NSF in response to budget cuts. We take our leave, and a few minutes later I chat with a (black) colleague from say, Wake Forest, who notes that he had heard about changes afoot at NSF? I reply with a description of the challenges facing the Duke/white guy, and then when I take my leave from the Wake Forest guy, I bump into Jonathan Bernstein, who notes that I am a racist because I talked to a black guy about a white guy's (relevant) problems while not also delving deeply into the black guy's problem.

    Keep in mind that Oliver didn't ask about his own problems; he simply wanted to know what TARP would do for "people he knows". If Alan, the old white guy, is plausibly in the category of "people Oliver knows", then there is nothing untoward about McCain referencing Alan. It would seem that the Bernsteins believe that old-white-guy Alan is clearly not "people Oliver knows", which come to think of it, is itself a bit racist.

    Finally, I wish to point out that your brother, in taking his swipes at McCain, nails McCain for saying that Oliver "probably never heard of Fannie and Freddie", as an indication that McCain is a condescending racist or something like that. McCain did say those words. But he followed them with "...before this crisis", which reframes the alleged racism into something arguably charming.

    Talk about your lazy mendacity!

    1. CSH,

      Your analogy doesn't hold, because the first guy didn't talk about that stuff. All he asked was a general question about the economy. Nothing about housing at all, and no personal information at all.

      (Not sure why McCain would think of Alan, who is sitting in a different section, as someone Oliver knows. Is Alan similar to those who Oliver knows? Maybe, maybe not; we don't know enough about either to guess at that. But answering Oliver's question about people he knows as a specific reference to Alan would be pretty bizarre, IMO).

      On Fannie/Freddie...I didn't repeat that because while I do find McCain's tone condescending, there's no particular reason, IMO, to connect that to the person he's answering. Without any further information, I'd just assume that "probably never heard of" is a canned answer which he would have used regardless.

    2. But Oliver asked a general question about the economy too! You might say that Alan asked about retirees while Oliver asked about his friends, and this distinction is enough that McCain would not connect the two...

      ...but cmon, we're talking about a debate, where pundits (present company certainly included) grant candidates a wide latitude in how to address questions! Thinking that McCain went "way beyond" this general rule in equating Alan and Oliver seems to beg the question a bit of whether McCain is (!) a racist.

      By the way, did you see Obama's response to Alan? Even by the incredibly loose standards of candidate debate replies, that meandering response was all over the map. What negative traits about Obama did you infer from that?

  4. I would like to relate these "famous town hall moments" to tonight. I think the most likely circumstance in which we are saying tomorrow that "Obama clearly won the debate" is if Romney commits a gaffe. As Jon Chait has written, the town hall format isn't great for relentlessly attacking your opponent; Obama probably won't be able to score a hard hit on Romney without seeming a bit out of place. What it's great for is empathy, and I think that Romney, though a fine debater, has a bit of trouble interacting smoothly with the "regular folk," as we can see through his numerous small gaffes (like Using your parents money to pay for school or Corporations are people). Most of those gaffes aren't really menacing, but probably don't play well in front of a huge audience.

    Obama's going to have to do his best to channel his inner Bill Clinton, so that maybe he can draw out Romney's inner "stiff wealthy businessman who is awkward around people"

  5. So, if McCain had been elected, the government would have bought up bad loans and stabilized home values?

  6. I have commented several times on this blog that Democrats are obsessed with calling Republicans racist (and evil), for any and no reason, and that this is why most Republicans, quite sensibly, are not interested in talking with Dems. This, and not "lazy mendacity" or "closed information loops" is the bottom line.

    Professor Bernstein, you had the gall to deny this, then go on to post this absolutely substance-free smear against Senator McCain. You are lowering the level of discourse, and making honest communication impossible. For shame.

    1. I suppose you believe that it is a completely accidental coincidence that the white majorities in the states that voted for the Wallace-LeMay ticket now vote in perfect lockstep for today's Republican party.

  7. Reminds me of Romney's now (at least) twice-repeated false statement that Americans don't die for lack of health insurance... in their apartments.

    Was happy that Josh Marshall highlighted the statement (http://talkingpointsmemo.com/archives/2012/10/the_lifestyles_of_the_poor_and_uninsured.php) because it struck me as loathsome in its chain of assumptions.

    Thanks for further clarification on that 47% theme, Mr. Romney.

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  9. Good post.

    This, for me, is the most famous town hall debate moment:

    And I like Gore, I wish he won, but this was a really bad moment for him and a very good moment for W.

  10. There's "no reason" for McCain to assume this other than his skin color? Really? How about his AGE? One's an old guy, one's a young guy. Which age group do you think is more likely to already own a home that they want to "stay" in?

    Good grief.

  11. And why didn't the media pick up on the most shocking moment of the V.P. debate? In response to the abortion question, Ryan starts off by saying, "I don't see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith." OMG! JFK is rolling in his grave! This is the very antithesis of his famous 1960 Houston speech. Ryan basically admits that he takes marching orders from the pope, and will shove those same orders down American womens' throats, regardless of their beliefs, if given the opportunity. And NOBODY in the media or the blogosphere commented on it. Outrageous.

    1. This is a horrendously dumb line of attack. The idea that your faith informs your political views is stupidly obvious, and not at all controversial. That's a long, long way from "marching orders from the pope."

      This is only "shocking" to screeching, hysterical people who can't differentiate between the ways religion informs one's views and the actual meshing of church and state.

    2. Anon 9:57,

      Don't know if you're a new Anon to the site or not, but if you want to stick around: can it with calling other commenters "screeching, hysterical people."

      General comment: For various reasons I don't want to ban anonymous commenters, but I'd urge regulars to ditch that and select a tag -- conversation works a lot better that way. And, secondly, I'm going to have a much quicker zapping trigger for anonymous commenters than named ones. Not zapping this one, but probably only because the attack was on another Anon.

    3. That's all perfectly fair, but sheesh, "marching orders from the Pope" is supposed to be less offensive? I'm not sure what the line of demarcation is here. Liberals can insinuate that Catholics are mindless, women-hating drones, but I can't insinuate that people who say that are being hysterical?


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