In the vice presidential debate, only one candidate looked into the camera and spoke to ‘you’


Because television is a visual medium, what is seen often registers more vividly than what is said. From prestige dramas to reality-show schlock, TV relies on character contrasts, the sharper the better. Much the same is true of politics, whose practitioners like to speak of the importance of “optics.”

Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris was a study in contrasts that went well beyond their parties and positions. It may not have been riveting television, but it was revealing television.

The most significant difference, of course, was built into the evening from the start. History was made by the simple act of Harris, the first woman of color on a major-party ticket, sharing a stage (from a distance of 12 feet) with Pence. Another welcome, impossible-to-miss distinction was the evening’s civility compared with last week’s demolition derby masquerading as a presidential debate, which featured President Trump in full bully mode against Democratic nominee Joe Biden. CNN anchor Jake Tapper spoke for many viewers after the Pence-Harris clash when he described it as “a normal debate . . . not an emotionally abusive session with someone who was a little unhinged.”

But the contrasts went beyond that. Appearing on a split-screen, with occasional cutaway shots of the plexiglass dividers that underscored the COVID-19 pandemic looming over the debate, Pence and Harris projected strikingly different personas and styles of communicating with voters. Harris was more effective because she demonstrated a surer understanding of how to use television.

The medium’s mass audience notwithstanding, it’s possible to create the illusion of a one-on-one intimacy, and that’s what Harris strove to do. She frequently looked straight into the camera and spoke directly to the viewers at home, maintaining a conversational tone, at one point even addressing them as “guys” during