Let us review the very recent activities of the two major candidates for president.
Barack Obama, the Democrat, toured the Middle East, appearing vigorous and worldly and urbane and presidential, shining in controlled settings with the media kept at a distance and under control in ways that should have made Ronald Reagan's old handlers proud.
Yet it was driving Republicans crazy. They're the ones who are supposed to manufacture their own handsome, self-serving imagery while they stymie and exploit the media.
John McCain's people complained that reporters were enamored of Obama. These McCain people started snidely calling Obama "The One."
Andrea Mitchell of NBC did not appear quite so caught up. She leans to the Alan Greenspan type, as we know by virtue of her being wed to Alan Greenspan.
She complained that some of the favorable images of Obama's trip were supplied not by legitimate press observers, but through military videotape. That included Obama's dribbling a basketball at a court at a military camp, then firing a shot from three-point range, and, of course, swishing it. Nothing but net.
Obama is a lefty and he appears to possess a few actual basketball skills and a bit of a soft touch on the jumper. It won't make him a good president. But it does make the 46-year-old appear cool and vigorous, and it contrasts him with McCain, days from his 72nd birthday, and, of late, not at all cool or vigorous.
McCain referred to Czechoslovakia, which hasn't existed in 15 years. He talked about the Iraq-Pakistan border, which has never existed. He said Somalia for Sudan.
To try to deflect the idea that he's too long in the tooth for the presidency, McCain made a joke on himself and pretended to doze off while a guest on Conan O'Brien's late-night show.
McCain's campaign called reporters' attention to Obama's once referring most curiously to "all 57 states" and contended that we all get tired and that we'd all make the occasional gaffe if under the media microscope 24 hours a day.
That's true. But under the media microscope the past couple of weeks, Obama made a three-pointer with the left hand and McCain couldn't find much with both hands.
More substantively, Tom Friedman columnized in The New York Times that McCain had been proven right on the surge in Iraq, but that the only effect had been to make Obama's withdrawal seem less naive and more plausible.
So does any of this really matter? Or will these merely be fleeting images from a few early and ultimately inconsequential days?
That's a good question -- the telling one -- and we simply can't yet know.
Obama needs to convince the American electorate that he is ready in terms of gravitas and energy for the challenges of the world. He appeared so last week.
McCain needs to convince the electorate he isn't too old and tired for the job. He did not succeed in that objective in recent days.
The underlying issue -- as big as policy substance -- is vigor and any residual effect from the candidates' evident differences therein.
In Orlando, Fla., in October 1992, the driver of a press bus at a Bill Clinton rally sat waiting, and waiting. Clinton, with tireless enthusiasm, was working a vast rope line after a rally, making himself typically and horribly late for the next event in a rodeo arena in Ocala.
The bus driver leaned on the big steering wheel and said to a reporter cooling his heels on board, "President Bush [the first one] can't do this."
And Clinton was pouring it on solely to put up enough of a fight in Florida that Bush would have to spend vital time there, instead of somewhere else, to shore up a state he simply had to have.
You pretty much knew at that point how the election was going to turn out.
John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.