Las Vegas Sun

January 18, 2018

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Smirks and smiles, style and substance

Oh, the dreaded “S” word.

I don’t know how many Americans tuned into the vice presidential debate Thursday night — I suspect it wasn’t nearly enough for the civics lesson that ensued — but those who did should not have been disappointed. Or, as the Sun Editorial and Opinion Editor Matt Hufman told me shortly after the telecast, “I tuned into a fight and a debate broke out!”

I thought both Vice President Joe Biden and Rep. Paul Ryan did very well, each having a specific purpose to achieve, and each achieving well above average grades for their performances. And lest anyone think that these two fellows weren’t on the public stage in a leading actor role, well, naiveté is an American tradition.

What I thought was curious was the general post-debate consensus that the two combatants battled to a draw when it came to substance but that on style points Ryan was the winner. I, of course, disagree.

Perhaps it is my bias toward the truth that compels me to believe that Biden was a far more compelling figure during the debate. For sure, Ryan showed himself to be the thoughtful, bright and glib personality that many believe him to be. He is, after all, a rising star in the Republican Party.

But, I always learned that when you are in a debate, pesky little things called facts actually matter. Perhaps that doesn’t apply during presidential and vice presidential debates because those are more about changing or converting the very few minds that have yet to decide for whom they will vote, but I learned that debating important positions always had to be based on facts.

And that brings me to the “S” word and how it may have played in those debates.

Some people may think that “S” refers to the words substance or style, the two categories which the “experts” deemed were controlling in deciding which debater actually won. Most people thought Biden either won slightly or tied Ryan on matters of substance, but that Ryan won on style. And they pointed to the first of the “S” words to make their point.

Biden smiled. Yes, he smiled when there was something to smile about and he smiled — thanks to the split screen — when his opponent said something that wasn’t quite true or was mostly untrue. The pundits said he should not have smiled because it was patronizing and rude. They also said he interrupted too much, which was equally rude, but since interruption doesn’t start with an “S,” I will leave that discussion for another time.

Yes, it is true. When the vice president hears something incredulous, he is prone to smiling just before he interrupts. He has always done that. In layman’s terms, we say it is calling “bull ... stuff” on the other guy. Biden used the word “malarkey” — thankfully — when referring to that which Ryan was trying to run past the American voter.

That’s what the first presidential debate was missing: candor. President Barack Obama was silent while Gov. Mitt Romney was changing his spots. People don’t act that way in their own lives, around their kitchen tables and in their workplaces. When someone says something unworthy of belief, ordinary people say so and they say it clearly.

Just before the vice president called the younger congressman out for what the fact checkers have said were utterly false statements, he smiled. In a poker game, Biden would get slaughtered because that engaging smile would give him away every time. But in the game of real life — that would be the fight for the highest office in the land — smiling at the brazenness employed in the effort to hoodwink the voting public was a welcome sign that malarkey was being spread!

Now, for the other “S” word. Ryan has not had a lifetime of smiling to inform the public when he is happy or about to spring against the truth, as he sees it. What Ryan did when he heard something with which he didn’t agree was smirk. I had to go back and watch a second and even third time, but there it was: a smirk.

Unlike a smile, which could be a sign of nervousness or happiness or even patronizing, a smirk evokes only one response: It is a sign of disrespect, no matter who is the smirker.

It shows a certain disdain for what others are saying and it shows a certain disrespect for the person across the table. When I was young, we learned that lesson. Perhaps that, like other lessons in manners, went untaught in Ryan’s generation.

To be fair, that smirk may be Ryan’s natural response to something he didn’t like and not an outward reflection of his feelings. If so, calling out his smirk may be unfair. But so, too, would it be unfair to call out Biden’s smile.

So, if we discount the style complaints of the pundits, we are left with another “S” word: substance.

And that, I submit, should be the issue upon which all of these debates must turn.

We live in a world that exalts style over substance. We care more about what a Kardashian is doing, saying or wearing than we do about the plight of people who are struggling to save their homes, their jobs and their families.

We condemn others around the world for reacting to how we say something rather than what we say and do, and yet we are only too happy to deal with matters of great importance in our own lives — Can you say presidential election? — in the same way.

This election, whichever way it goes, is too important to let it turn on style points. Facts matter. The substance of one’s positions matters. Who smiles and who smirks should never trump issues of fact and fiction.

I know in elections like this the public will react to someone they like and repel from someone they don’t. I get that.

But first, they should demand the truth from those who expect their votes. That would be a voting style with real substance.

Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.

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