Bush Debate Debacle Analyzed
by John C. Dvorak

Podium Height is the problem

In the world of TV there is a unit of measurement called an apple crate. This is, in fact, a variety of heavy duty apple-crate-like wood boxes, painted black, that are used to equalize the height of participants in talk shows where people have to stand next to each other. You stand on them. Typically you find a quarter, half, three quarters and the full crate which is only used for very short women. Apparently the media consultants who work for the Bush campaign were unaware of this trick or they just didn’t care when they agreed to a fixed podium height and “no risers.” If they were going to agree to this then Bush should have at least worn elevator shoes to pick up an inch. As you can see from the time slice photos I took from the debate (standard def) Bush could have used a half crate to come up to the height of Kerry. How the Bush people, who dominated the debate rules, didn’t get this right, is mystifying unless someone is trying to sink the campaign from within.

The psychological effect on the viewer is immediate. It’s part of the reason that talk show hosts are lifted about four inches higher than guests. It creates a sub-conscious recognition of dominance. In the case of Bush-Kerry it makes Bush look like a little kid at the dinner table, wimpy, submissive. His demeanor re-enforced this with his pauses and simplistic answers. In some shots (as I show) he looks like a reticent or sometimes angry child.

Kerry, on the other hand, is perfectly positioned with the podium height. His tie is almost completely visible and he looks like the dad while Bush looks like the son. It’s the side-by-side camera shots where they put the two feeds together where this is made obvious to everyone. I’m actually shocked that none of the nit-picking bloggers (who over-analyze everything) have not picked up on this since it is so obvious. But they haven’t. The side-by-side shot also has one other subtle subconscious message. Bush is trying to hide something. In these two-shots there is probably 15-percent more Kerry on screen than Bush.

Furthermore, as shown in the photos below many, if not most, of Bush’s hand gestures were never seen. They were below the camera-line-of-sight and blocked by the podium. Kerry was seen gesturing openly, even from some distant shots.

This sort of gaffe is inexcuseable, especially with Bush who seemed ill-prepared for the debate and needed an edge. If the Bush people had negotiated for a podium that was amenable to the Bush height and thus lowered four inches, then Bush would have looked normal and Kerry would have looked like a gawky goofball, too tall for the venue. This was a major strategic blunder and a blown opportunity.

While the debate rules are supposedly set in stone, I am sure that the Bush team will try and renegotiate the terms. Or they should. If they don’t, then they’re fools or working against the campaign from within. In fact it would be more fair if the President were on a box, but then he could be ridiculed for that too. This is now a no-win situation because someone made a huge error that could cost the election. This isn’t rocket science, it’s broadcasting.

podium height
Kerry gestures
Bush gestures
overall effect

  1. John Ryle says:

    Just wanted to say: interesting article and hilarious pics! Thanks!

  2. Milo says:

    Saw this today and it kinda has a ring to it!

    “In the middle of an answer [during the presidential debate] last night Bush said, ‘now let me finish’ as if someone was interrupting him- yet nobody did- he [seemed to be] talking to the person in his earpiece. Listen to the mp3* yourself- or watch the video at c-span**… The ‘let me finish’ quip was clearly Bush talking to (probably Rove) in his earpiece- saying let me finish before you give me the next answer. He blows it 60 sec into his 90 sec reply- so no warning lights had gone off and Lehrer had not motioned for him to end as he had plenty of time left…

    “There is really no other plausible explanation for this huge blunder- who was he telling to ’let him finish’? The voices in his head? Is he talking to God again?… Is the ‘president’ so incompetent he needs an earpiece to speak in public? The entire Bush regime is a house of cards- let this be the first card pulled from the bottom tier.”

    *Click on this link for the audio: http://publish.nyc.indymedia.org/newswire/rate/125456/< ?php%20echo($g_url)%20?%3Eemailto.php?id=125456 **Here's the video from C-Span http://www.c-span.org/. Click on “First Presidential Debate” and fast-forward to about 40 minutes in. You can actually see Bush listening!”

  3. Zama says:

    I can’t imagine why misleading the American public with risers is somehow more “fair” than having the candidates simply represent themselves honestly. After all, if Bush weren’t determined to come across as a whiny, defensive six year-old child, it wouldn’t matter that he doesn’t have Kerry’s physical stature. Bush didn’t lose this debate due to podium height, debate rules, or another similarly superficial criterion. He was simply outclassed, in both content and presentation. It was absolutely embarrassing.

  4. And here I thought I was quite the minutae observer of infinitely tiny details of things.

    Thank you for taking the time and effort to present this analysis.

    I much prefer the candidates, all the candidates, not just our wimpy presentation of the “two major party” candidates, would be debating at a nursing home recreation room, or a children’s orphanage, or a zoo.

    Get them down to street level, in front of a crack house, or a rescue mission, or a Camp Cupcake facility.

    Let them wrestle or box. It looked like Bush was continually thinking, “Can I kick him and bite him now? Please????”

    The usability of the debates is at an all time low.

    Nobody “wins” or “loses” a presidential campaign debate. How childish a notion. But they either present their positions clearly, or just attack the other’s position (or lack thereof).

    I have yet to see any politician that I could say I liked.

  5. Why don’t we pick our president by who wins a boxing or wrestling match? Weren’t kings of old chosen due to being the toughest warrior around, and they led the charge against enemy tribes?

    Why don’t we say “none of the above” and make Vaspers the Grate winner by default?

    As a marketing zombie, here’s my suggested slogan:

    “If you don’t vote for me, you must be insane”

  6. Zappini says:

    Zama wrote:

    “Bush didn’t lose this debate due to podium height, debate rules, or another similarly superficial criterion.”

    Dvorak’s points are sound. TV is about style over substance. Like McLuhan, famous for opaquely observing “the medium is the message”, wrote in “Understanding Media”, you can’t fight it.

    Similarly, I had a very negative reaction to Moore’s F9/11. I thought it was cheap and didn’t nearly go far enough in exposing these bastards. But even when I complain about Moore, Rove, and Fox News, I know that they’re right and I’m wrong. They’re using the media effectively and to do it my way would fail utterly.

    We’ll see if the rise of blogs will change the rules of discourse. Here’s hoping.

    Lastly, I’ve been reading Dvorak since forever. Most industry pundits become irrelevant after just a few years. But Dvorak has a style that somehow keeps his writing fresh. Again, style over substance. That’s not a criticism! I look forward to each column.


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