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Greene: The voices McCain and Obama won't hear

  • Story Highlights
  • If candidates could hear debate watchers at home, they could tweak their messages
  • Decades of television have removed distance and majesty that candidates once had
  • Voting for president was once more like voting for a poster or weeks-old article
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By Bob Greene
CNN Contributor
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Award-winning writer Bob Greene is riding CNN's Election Express across the country in the final weeks before the election to tell stories about how the issues affect Americans.

Polls show that the candidates are in a close race for the White House.

ABOARD THE CNN ELECTION EXPRESS (CNN) -- There's something that Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama won't hear tonight.

They'll hear the words of Tom Brokaw, the moderator of the debate here in Nashville, Tennessee.

And they'll hear questions from some members of the audience, who will be permitted to speak at the town hall-style event.

They'll probably hear applause from people gathered outside to catch a glimpse of the arrival and departure of the next president.

But McCain and Obama will not hear what may be the most important voices of all:

The voices of people all across the United States, watching the debate at home, who will be talking at their television screens -- addressing the candidates as if they know them, sometimes praising them, sometimes insulting them, often advising them. Video Watch what's at stake in tonight's debate »

It happens every debate night, and if the two campaigns could somehow have a transcript of what is said in every household in the country -- the words directed at the screens -- the campaigns would have a much better idea of how to fine-tune their strategies.

The people in the living rooms and bedrooms are perhaps only half-aware that they're talking to the screens. I wouldn't have thought about it, were it not for the circumstances of where I watched the Joe Biden-Sarah Palin vice presidential debate last week in St. Louis, Missouri.

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Instead of going to the campus of Washington University, where Sen. Biden and Alaska Gov. Palin met, I watched at the home of an old friend and his wife in suburban St. Louis, in a house on Wydown Terrace.

We ate carry-in Chinese food; as soon as Biden and Palin walked onto the stage, the one-way conversation with the candidates began.

"You're dead wrong," the wife said to the screen when one of the candidates made a point.

"Don't use those kinds of words," the husband said to the screen when the other candidate became too grandiloquent.

"Come on!" the wife said when one candidate tried a particularly dramatic flourish. "Are you kidding me?"

"No one in the world talks like this," the husband scolded the other candidate.

The candidates were being treated, in the house on Wydown Terrace, as utterly life-sized. That is what decades of television have done: removed whatever distance and majesty may once have accrued to the people who seek the presidency. That's a good thing: Despite the imperfections of a system that allows voters thousands of miles removed to see the candidates walk and talk and perspire in real time, those imperfections are preferable to the built-in faults of the old way.

Do you think Americans had any idea who they were voting for back when Martin Van Buren and James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor ran for president? It had to be like voting for a rumor -- it was voting for a poster, or a handbill, or a two-week-old newspaper dispatch from a reporter far away who may or may not have gotten the quotes down correctly.

On this journey aboard the Election Express, we have ridden through rural communities in isolated mountain passes, and we have seen the dishes on almost every front porch -- the dishes aimed at satellites out in space, to bring the world, including the presidential campaign, into those remote homes, live and crystal-clear.

Tonight in Nashville, Obama and McCain will speak, and almost instantly their words, and their faces, will appear in those mountain homes -- and in some of those homes, the people undoubtedly will speak back to the candidates, maybe praise them, maybe mock them, but certainly tell them what they think.

Obama and McCain won't hear a word. Which is sort of a shame. They could probably learn a few things by eavesdropping.

Oh. There's this, too:

About two-thirds of the way through the vice presidential debate, in the house on Wydown Terrace, the family pet -- a little white dog named Rocco -- made it abundantly clear that if he didn't go outside soon, the carpet would pay the price.

There was considerable conversation about who would accompany Rocco, and by the time the decision was made, and Rocco was escorted into the night, a few minutes of the debate had passed unheard.

So, to Sens. McCain and Obama:

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No matter how eloquently you think you are making your points -- no matter how flawlessly you believe you nail a key moment in Nashville tonight -- somewhere in America, probably many somewheres, a dog is going to pre-empt you.

Rutherford B. Hayes never had to worry about such things.

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