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Watching the Watchdog: Last Night Obama Got His Mojo Back

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Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

I lived in different parts of Africa (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, DR Congo) for 15 years. And over the decades I've been back perhaps a dozen times to cover news stories and train broadcast journalists in the ways of democratic journalism.

I'm what you call an old Africa hand.

I'm also very Caucasian, as in whitish skin and (remnants of) blonde hair.

In Africa below the Sahara they call white folks like me mzungu, a Swahili word which has nothing to do with skin colour. Instead it means "aimless wanderer" and was first used to describe those European explorers who swarmed Africa in the 18th Century and arrogantly planted all those national flags on land already owned by local people so they could steal it for their own.

One of the advantages that goes with being a mzungu in Africa even today is an abomination called white-skin privilege. Put crudely, it means that almost everyone assumes automatically, without necessarily articulating it, that most whites are superior to most blacks. So whites get more respect.

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In the 10 years I reported for ABC, NBC and PBS in the U.S., I recognized that same white-skin privilege I'd seen in Africa. And it wasn't just when I was reporting from the racist, redneck South, burdened with its own brutal version of apartheid.

Just like in Africa, white-skin privilege is a tradition, deep in American genes.

I tell you all this to prove that I know white-skin privilege when I see it. Which qualifies me to suggest with considerable diffidence that white-skin privilege explains, at least in part, Barack Obama's behaviour during his first debate with Mitt Romney, an alpha-white-male if ever there was one.

Obama behaved like a cautious, respectful black man facing a very powerful white man -- a mzungu.

He seldom looked directly at Romney.

He seldom contradicted Romney.

He never raised his voice to Romney.

He never really challenged Romney.

Neil Macdonald, the astute and fearless Washington correspondent for CBC News, explored the same theory before last night's Obama/Romney debate:

"...on Tuesday night, Obama will be facing the personification of white American privilege, and even in the new-millennium, supposedly post-racial America, a black man in that position has to watch his tongue as surely as he has to be more deferential to the cop who's standing outside his car window, shining the big flashlight.

Let's put it another way. Imagine what the reaction will be if Obama deploys the tactics his vice-president, Joe Biden, used last week against Romney's vice-presidential nominee, Paul Ryan?

That would be grinning derisively, pointing, laughing out loud, lecturing, and spouting lines like 'That's a bunch of malarkey. Not a single thing he said was accurate.'

To ask the question is to answer it."

So what happens in the second U.S. presidential debate? Once again, Obama is the story.

But this time the headline is:

OBAMA GETS HIS MOJO BACK!!!

Obama comes out bristling for a fight. At the start, he's a little shrill, a bit nervous, a touch querulous. But this time he stands up to Romney.

In fact, three times in the first 20 minutes he accuses the governor of lying. After the beating Obama gets from Romney without fighting back in their first bout, it takes guts. Romney watches, smiles that set, rigid, establishment smile of his, but offers no counter punch. Must be planning an ambush.

As the town hall goes on, Obama proves he's well rehearsed in all the myriad facts he has to know. And in an odd way, as he gets more assured, he becomes more likeable. Certainly, he gets more confident. He loses the shrillness, his voice deepens. He's persuasive, passionate.

In a very polite but presidential "don't mess with me" sort of way he even refuses to let the formidable moderator, CNN's Candy Crowley, interrupt him when he's in full flight about some real or imagined Republic wrongdoing.

Romney doesn't lose this contest. He looks and mostly sounds the sort of reasonable man who likely won't make too bad a president of the United States, if elected. But this time Obama's in charge. He dominates the fight, provides the drive, the passion. This time, no deference.

Obama looks directly at Romney.

He contradicts Romney.

He raises his voice to Romney.

He challenges Romney.

I really don't know who wins all those squabbles over detail. Or understand a lot of that wrangling over the minutiae of various bills. Or who said what to whom, when or why. But I do know that Romney sprang no ambush. And I do know that Barack Obama has finally found his cojones.

No mzungu last night.