Clarity isn't the same as wisdom

First I spent long moments trying to decide upon my greatest moral failing. Then I spent longer moments asking myself whether I'd really want to share that failing with an audience of millions.

So much for playing along at home.

By the time I was done agonizing, Hamlet-like, over that question, posed by Pastor Rick Warren during his televised presidential forum at Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., he had gone to a commercial.

Color me impressed, then, with both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain for promptly answering that and other toughies during last week's forum. And color me impressed with the program itself; it was that rare campaign appearance that imparted something of value.

Credit the decision to ask both men identical questions; it allowed voters to draw sharp comparisons and contrasts. Credit also the questions, which were designed to elicit not 10-point plans and strategic visions but some sense of how a man's mind works, some inventory of his soul.

McCain more impressive

John McCain gave the more impressive performance. His answers were crisp and concise where Obama's were long and thoughtful. Where Obama navigated shifting shades of gray in answering questions about faith, gay marriage and the existence of evil, McCain's answers were as direct as an arrow in flight.

Take, for example, a question about when a fetus gets human rights. Obama responded that, whether one is speaking theologically or scientifically, the answer is “above my pay grade.” He went on say he supports Roe v. Wade “not because I'm pro-abortion but because, ultimately, I don't think women make these decisions casually. I think they wrestle with these things in profound ways …” Finally, he expressed his wish to reduce the number of abortions, while not restricting access to them.

McCain said, “At the moment of conception.”

You found yourself wishing Dr. Frankenstein was around to combine each candidate's best qualities into one. That expedient being unavailable, we are left to parse the ways last week's forum illuminates the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates and the parties they represent.

Obama, for all his vaunted rhetorical agility and eloquence, seemed curiously leaden. Like legions of Democrats before him, he was unable to find a way of explaining nuanced positions in concise and compelling ways. In answering the abortion question, for instance, one could argue that he — to use a journalism term — buried the lede. Might he not have been more effective had he said from the beginning that his goal is to keep abortions legal — but make them rare?

Appealing simplicity

Republicans, of course, don't have the burden Democrats do; by and large, they don't do nuance. On abortion (outlaw it), immigration (build a fence) and just about every other issue you can name, they are as clear and blunt as a punch in the nose. There is a stark simplicity to their positions that is undeniably appealing.

But if these last years have taught us nothing else, they've taught us not to mistake stark simplicity for wisdom. That, after all, was supposed to have been the key to George W. Bush's appeal: he was a plain-spoken guy of plain-spoken values, not some egghead intellectual elitist noodling around in shades of gray.

Seven years later, we see where that's gotten us. The one thing most of us agree on is that the country is a mess.

It's something to remember as candidates struggle to explain who they are and what they believe, something these last years should have made abundantly clear: The simplest answer is not always the best.