As viewers what we will be hoping for is the gaffe. If there isn’t one we will feel let down. So will the programme producers. It’s the same for live coverage of a Grand Prix where the most compelling viewing is the pile-up at the start.
Our plucky contestants, of course, are desparately hoping to avoid the gaffe. They know only to well that an entire campaign can be sabotaged by one mistake captured on camera and to be repeated for ever on the net. The stakes are high!
The format, with restricted questions and interviewers less threatening than Paxman, or the deceptively ‘easy’ Frost (who famously nailed Nixon) is more contestant friendly than in US. However danger lurks. All will be preparing assiduously, studying every debate since Nixon/Kennedy, rehearsing in front of cameras and audiences, with tough interviewers alongside substitute contestants.
They may even seek advice from impersonator Tina Fey, who as Sarah Palin, “thanked the third graders of Gladys Wood Elementary School who were so helpful in my debate prep.”
The gaffes they may still make will be verbal or, just as damaging non-verbal.
Nixon won his famous debate with Kennedy with the radio audience. He lost it on television because he looked sweaty, tired and shifty. Kennedy looked youthful, confident and sincere. The first President Bush glanced at his watch and lost the election as Bill Clinton took three paces towards his audience and won it.
Verbal gaffes can be equally devastating. Ford, said “there is no Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe”. Wrong, and it probably cost him the election. Biden, known as king of the gaffes, managed to plagiarise an entire speech by, of all people, Neil Kinnock. It didn’t work for him either.
So, avoiding the gaffe is a priority but even more important is the way you handle it when you do make one. You can prepare. As always, its not what you say but the way you say it. The gracious acknowledgment, humour and the prepared remark that diverts.
The master exponent of this was the often forgetful but ever charming, Ronald Regan. In debate with Walter Mondale who, unlike him, knew what he was talking about, he said ” I am not going to exploit for political purpose my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even Mondale laughed…and lost.