L’esprit d’escalier

The french have a wonderful phrase “l’esprit d’escalier” – literally, “the spirit of the staircase” – which describes that feeling of thinking of just the right way to respond, after it is already far too late. I’m sure you’ve been there: You wake up at three in the morning, your friends all gone home, the bar long closed, when it occurs to you – that perfect clever comeback that you didn’t think of earlier in the evening. Now of course, lying there in your jammies, it is far, far too late.

Thinking back on the third and final presidential debate this last week, it occurred to me that there was a quality to Obama’s performance – a quality totally lacking in McCain’s – that brings “l’esprit d’escalier” to mind. Perhaps a small digression would help here…

Suppose you had a magic stopwatch (bear with me here) that you could click every time you said the wrong thing instead of the right thing. Like all good magic stopwatches, this handy gadget would freeze time – that is, everything except you – giving you plenty of time to think over what you should have said. Then you could just rewind the watch by, say, twenty seconds, click on it a second time, and replay the moment, this time getting it right. Voila – no more “l’esprit d’escalier”.

I think of this when I think of the real battle that McCain and Obama were waging. They both knew that it wasn’t a battle about the issues – we know their respective positions on the issues, and by now they’ve pretty much both locked those positions down to familiar talking points. No, it was more of a contest to see whether McCain could get Obama mad.

Nobody cares all that much if McCain gets mad. He’s almost supposed to get mad. He’s the war hero, the old curmudgeon. Many of his supporters even like that quality in him. But for Obama it could be fatal. In the minds of millions, he would instantly transform from this fascinating figure of mystery – the mixed race intellectual, the multicultural orator – to an altogether different figure – the angry black man. As unfair as that is, it is a reality, one the Republicans are all to eager to exploit if they can just find the right button within him to push.

So McCain said one incendiary thing after another, trying to locate that button. Some of it, like the silly Ayers stuff, sounded outright ludicrous coming from the mouth of a presidential candidate. But what fascinated me wasn’t the tone of McCain’s attack – belligerent, insulting, dismissive – but rather Obama’s response.

Almost any of us ordinary mortals (myself included) would have sooner or later blown up at this kind of stuff, gotten angry or adopted a tit-for-tat tone in response to such below-the-belt taunts. But that’s not at all what Obama did. Through it all he remained calm, collected, almost relaxed, no matter what was thrown at him, methodically dismantling McCain’s attacks with clear and well articulated factual responses.

And I have come to realize that I was witnessing the kind of performance somebody like me might have turned in if I’d had the chance to try it over and over, had time to put aside my anger at being attacked, to regain my composure and my center, and maybe to play the tape back to see whether I was getting it right. In other words, if I’d had that magic stopwatch.

But Obama did it in real time, with no retakes, no magic stopwatch. He understood the game the Republicans were playing – the game of “let’s try to show America an angry Obama” – and he ran circles around them. Yes, from time to time his answers slowed down – you could see the wheels turning in his head, the care with which he picked his words to avoid the rhetorical landmines they were expecting him to stop on at any moment – but he did in fact get through the entire debate without stepping on a single landmine, without uttering even a single string of words that the Republicans could later take out of context to say “behold America – the words of an angry black man!”

How Obama manages to stay so calm and collected, to summon such presence of mind in the face of such a persistent and high level of hostility and goading, I have no idea. But I do know that he has the kind of presence of mind that I want in my Commander in Chief.

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