BOB GARFIELD: We're joined now by James Fallows, national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. Jim, welcome back.
JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: When we spoke to you a couple of weeks ago, you described the debating styles of the candidates based on their past performances. True to form, were they?
JAMES FALLOWS: I would say the debate was about 50 percent true to form. The John Kerry we saw on stage was pretty much a linear extension of his past debating performances, and he was near the high end of what he's done ever before. The surprise to me was how President Bush performed, because based on everything I'd seen from him in the past, I expected a much stronger performance. When he's been at his best, he's managed to be effectively on-message, which is to say he has his two or three main points, but he finds a way to have them seem natural and organic and in context. When he's been weak in off the cuff performances, like at press conferences, he has a kind of clumsy version of being on, on message, where he just reels out the couple of points again and again. And that was, I think, more the situation he was in. The other, far more startling aspect of the president's performance was all the non-verbal component -- the fact that he was sort of hunched down behind the stage, that he permitted himself to look worried or defensive or upset whenever he was being criticized.
BOB GARFIELD: How about the performance of Jim Lehrer, the moderator, who had taken a lot of criticism in 2000 for allowing substantial questions to go substantially unanswered? There were hundreds of rules attached to this debate. Do you think he did a good job?
JAMES FALLOWS: I think he did do a good job, and again, there is a certain limit to how far you can press the interrogation here. I mean there were a number of issues sort of left open as assertions on one side or the other -- you know, how many security troops were actually trained in Iraq and how many nuclear weapons Korea actually had possessed, etc. But I, I thought that Jim Lehrer, within the constraints imposed on him, did a good job, and really the one thing that was mildly questionable, he seemed to give the president more opportunities for the 30 second followups than he did Senator Kerry.
BOB GARFIELD: There were also rules set for the cameramen, and reaction shots were explicitly banned -yet there they were. Is the sun setting, do you suspect, on the excessive debate choreography that the campaigns impose?
JAMES FALLOWS: You know, I'm sure that the next time there's one of these debates, there'll be an even longer agreement than there was this time. It was 32 pages this time. Let's say it'll be 64 the time after that, then 128. I think that, simultaneously, the campaigns will try to set rules, and if they have any kind of canniness will know there's some rules that just are not going to be enforceable. The idea that you know the viewing public was going to have the camera strictly on the person who was speaking was preposterous. That's why the most surprising aspect of the president's debate preparation was that he was not sort of steeled to maintain a stony face or a positive face as Senator Kerry was doing when his opponent was speaking.
BOB GARFIELD: Senator Kerry was either writing furiously at his lectern or wearing a, a smile plastered on his face -- a respectful one.
JAMES FALLOWS: He managed to do something that many sort of pre-debate analysts had said he needed to do -paradoxically being both intense and relaxed-seeming. I think he was able through much of the debate to have that combination.
BOB GARFIELD: The New York Times' Adam Nagourney decided to shun the spin room after the debate and write his piece from his hotel room. Were there signs of a media rebellion?
JAMES FALLOWS: There is a kind of risk-taking and daring and bravado. If you're a reporter, the signs say okay, here's what I think happened and here's what I'm going to say based on my own eyes, as opposed to hearing what's going on in, in the spin room, so I, I praise Mr. Nagourney all the more for being willing to do that. Mr. Nagourney's brave rebellion might be a, a sign of the future for the press. TV has a certain amount of time that it has to fill after the debate, and there are all sorts of things that happen, especially on TV which are purely convention-driven.
BOB GARFIELD: Now let's talk for a moment about the non-media -- what we at this show like to call "the public." In the hours leading up to the debate, the Democratic National Committee chief Terry McAuliffe called on Kerry's supporters to weigh in on all the network instant polls, and our mail box [LAUGHS] --our humble little mailbox -- was crammed with hundreds of emails from Kerry supporters. Is this evidence of the spin machine or is it evidence of rage against it?
JAMES FALLOWS: I think it probably is both those things. I mean the, the Kerry people probably thought -and with some reason - that if these instant polls could have some sign of a Kerry, quote, "victory," unquote - which they seem to do -that even though everyone knew the limits of that kind of poll, it would have some inevitable psychological effect. You could view this as actually a good thing for politics, if you wanted. As many of the measures for having some kind of prediction of what's actually going to happen in an election becomes debauched for one reason or another, instant polls, actual scientific polls, because of, you know, cell phones, which -harder to track people down - all sorts of call-screening devices which make people harder to reach -- as all those things become fuzzier, there is an element of actual suspense in elections again -- it returns to some degree to the judgment of the candidates, once again.
BOB GARFIELD: So four years ago when Al Gore huffed and puffed and made faces through the first debate, by the second time around, his demeanor had changed dramatically. Can we assume that [LAUGHS] President Bush, in the second debate, will cut a different figure altogether?
JAMES FALLOWS: Certainly since his team has less reason to be happy with his performance than the Kerry team does -- since George Bush has done better in all his previous debates than he did in this most recent one -- he's the one from whom one would expect a change. The danger here, of course, is getting into the Al Gore syndrome from 2000 where in the first debate Al Gore seemed far too aggressive, in the second debate he was sort of far too passive, and then in the third debate he had a quite effective combination. So the ideal for President Bush would be to go into the second debate with a kind of confident easiness he's shown in his recent stump appearances and his past debates, but without seeming too radically different from the George Bushes we've seen before. So that's, I imagine, the tuning that's going on in the Bush camp now.
BOB GARFIELD: Jim, thank you very much for your pre-debate thoughts and for your post-debate ones as well. I think we now have closure.
JAMES FALLOWS: My pleasure. Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: James Fallows is national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, how the Afghan media is covering its presidential campaign, and a chill runs down the spine of CBS News.