It is not the truth; it is the perception of the truth that matters.
Ann Coulter’s appearance on The View last week became fodder for journalists, pundits feigning horror, and bloggers everywhere. But for anyone who’s witnessed Coulter’s normal spiral into the hyperbolic abyss there was nothing newsworthy about her interaction with Whoopi Goldberg and the rest of the co-hosts. Unless, of course, you read the news the following day.
During a presidential debate in 1992, then-candidate Bill Clinton was long-winding his way through a diatribe when President George H.W. Bush glanced at his watch. It happened so fast that for most viewers the gesture barely registered. But hours later when Americans cracked opened their newspapers over breakfast; they learned that Bush had made a fatal mistake. A few days later that peek was already considered an historic moment, and a couple of weeks later Bush was history. According to pundits and historians, the forty-first president’s quick little glance was the final nail in his campaign coffin. But we didn’t know that then.
Vice President Nixon’s flop-sweats and five-o’-clock shadow made Jack Kennedy president, yet radio listeners assumed Nixon had resoundingly defeated the Democratic whippersnapper in the first televised presidential debate. Yet when voters saw the perspiration their perceptions changed. Was the problem that Americans hadn’t yet seen the sweat or was it that they were told the sweat mattered?
Vice President Gore sighed repeatedly during his debate with then-governor George W. Bush and though it didn’t seem like much of anything then, it’s still a talking point twelve years later. Photographs of Senator John Kerry wind-surfing somehow made him elitist, though it was his honorable service in Vietnam that may have actually swiftboated him right back to Massachusetts.
Senator Michael Dukakis drove a tank straight to defeat against the first Bush, while conversely all President Ronald Regan had to say was, “Well, there you go again” to sweep Vice President Mondale into the would-be presidential losers’ bin.
And how will history, which now gets banged out in real-time, record the final straw in this election? Chances are we’ll be told what that actually was by every form of media on November 8th. We may have already seen it: Romney’s “Corporations are people, my friends,” the Chair, the Smirk, or the 47-Percenters, or perhaps there’s another chink in the tarnished armor that will keel the campaign: one we haven’t seen yet.
Though President Obama is currently riding high in the polls (today’s USA Today/Gallup Poll gives the president a ten-point lead with middle class voters), we may have already glimpsed an Achilles’ heel that could send the Obama’s packing. No, not the slow-rising economy as the talking heads once proposed, but rather from the charred American consulate in Libya. A seemingly innocuous whiff can become a bonfire in short time.
There’s a reason you’ll be hearing the term “October surprise” throughout the month — that unforeseen wild card that could switch history down a different lane — but the problem is that you may not even know it when you see it.
The only thing for certain is that a collective perception of truth, prodded by momentum and hindsight, will matter more than what actually transpires during the debates. What you’re seeing doesn’t matter — how it was seen does.