„In televisionland we are all sophisticated enough now to realize that every statistic has an equal and opposite statistic somewhere in the universe. It is not a candidate's favorite statistic per se that engages us, but the assurance with which he can use it.
We are testing the candidates for self-confidence, for "Presidentiality" in statistical bombardment. It doesn't really matter if their statistics be homemade. What settles the business is the cool with which they are dropped.
And so, as the second half hour treads the decimaled path toward the third hour, we become aware of being locked in a tacit conspiracy with the candidates. We know their statistics go to nothing of importance, and they know we know, and we know they know we know.
There is total but unspoken agreement that the "debate," the arguments which are being mustered here, are of only the slightest importance.
As in some primitive ritual, we all agree — candidates and onlookers — to pretend we are involved in a debate, although the real exercise is a test of style and manners. Which of the competitors can better execute the intricate maneuvers prescribed by a largely irrelevant ritual?
This accounts for the curious lack of passion in both performers. Even when Ford accuses Carter of inconsistency, it is done in a flat, emotionless, game-playing style. The delivery has the tuneless ring of an old press release from the Republican National Committee. Just so, when Carter has an opportunity to set pulses pounding by denouncing the Nixon pardon, he dances delicately around the invitation like a maiden skirting a bog.
We judge that both men judge us to be drained of desire for passion in public life, to be looking for Presidents who are cool and noninflammable. They present themselves as passionless technocrats using an English singularly devoid of poetry, metaphor and even coherent forthright declaration.
Caught up in the conspiracy, we watch their coolness with fine technical understanding and, in the final half hour, begin asking each other for technical judgments. How well is Carter exploiting the event to improve our image of him? Is Ford's television manner sufficiently self-confident to make us sense him as "Presidential"?
It is quite extraordinary. Here we are, fully aware that we are being manipulated by image projectionists, yet happily asking ourselves how obligingly we are submitting to the manipulation. It is as though a rat running a maze were more interested in the psychologist's charts on his behavior than in getting the cheese at the goal line.“
— Russell Baker
There's a Country in My Cellar (1990), "And All of Us So Cool" (p.340)