For a while it looked as if the first debate of the presidential campaign might be a kind of Zen riddle -- what is the sound of one man debating? With John McCain running off to save the economy, the showdown at Ole Miss bid fair to become mere target practice, with Barack Obama shooting at whatever cans were set up for him.
Staying away would have been a bad idea for McCain, whose absence would have looked worse than Obama's presence. McCain's nonsuspended suspended campaign notwithstanding, America was statistically in favor of the candidates continuing to run for president, and the University of Mississippi had already spent a load of dough to make it happen.
So the show went on. There were no surprises in what the candidates had to say; the point was to see how they "performed." Performance is what our culture demands: "John McCain and Barack Obama: Together Again," an evening of improv with your host Jim Lehrer. One candidate old, one young (well, middle-aged); one tall, one less tall; one thin, one stout; one urbane, one folksy. If they decide to give up this running-for-president business, they're perfectly shaped for a career in comedy.
McCain dropped his Gs and a bucketload of names: Eisenhower, Schultz, Kissinger, Petraeus, Reagan (whom he sounds a little like). He waxed sentimental, waved flags, tried to play the wise owl to Obama's barn swallow.
Obama, who dropped a G or two himself, was a little more straightforward, but he'd clearly practiced (if only in his mind) making straightforward work for him. Words came and went and came again: Wall Street, Main Street, hatchet, scalpel, deficits, drilling, Taliban, Pakistan, ethanol, nuclear, walk the walk, talk the talk, I, I, I, me, me, me.
It was clearly tense for them -- they were not chummy, though each got a laugh or two -- but it was tense for me too. This election is making me a wreck.
I had hoped for Lehrer to be my rock here, but he pressed unprofitable questions at first, and seemed too concerned that the candidates address each other face to face, as if it were a kind of political therapy session, or a two-person one-act play.
He settled in, finally, though the minutes got away from him. Still, although both candidates went on occasion to their happy place -- improv pushes you back to what you know -- it often had the satisfying ping and pong of an actual debate.
It all depends on who's scoring. Like gymnastics or boxing or "Dancing With the Stars," the criteria are slippery and personal and hard to quantify.
Let's call it a tie, friends, to stay friends. Neither candidate fell apart; each had rehearsed inconvenient facts about the other; both knew the names of foreign countries and the people who run them. (That was refreshing!)
It wasn't thrilling, but neither was it horrifying.
At the end, they kissed their wives, stood briefly together like couples at a cocktail party. The audience, asked to hold its applause to the end, released it with vigor.