By Mark Wolf
How much of politics is theater? How much of what the nation will see in the first debate is the result of rigorous rehearsal and how much is authentic?
The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School gathered Oscar winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, NBC News chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd, former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center Kathleen Hall Jamieson to discuss "Politics as Theater" at the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver just hours before the first presidential debate.
You can watch the discussion here.
Todd said the better performer and most likeable candidate wins most presidential elections and that southern politicians such as Bill Clinton ("who ate sticks of butter and fried chicken") have the best grasp on the drama of campaigning.
He also suggested time should be set aside in each debate for the moderator to rewind and fact-check claims made by the candidate, taking advantage of social media's facility for instant fact-checking and feedback.
Sorkin said he didn't think that by the end of the debate "we'll be any better educated on the issues than we were before the debate," but Jamieson, who also oversees the FactCheck.org site, disagreed.
"That's just not true," she said. "What we know from studying the debates is that people do learn and they are better able to accurately represent even the positions of the opposing candidate. So even if you say that debates don't change minds, they don't usually, but they increase the likelihood that you will understand things that will forecast governance."
Simpson said the nation is "thirsting for the truth" but predicted the debate would present "something that looks like Fred Astaire on steroids."
The cutaway shots where the camera lingers on one candidate while his opponent is talking "is actually the one moment where we realize that's what they really think, that's who they really are. That's authenticity," said Todd.