Don’t Shoot The Messenger . . .
. . . 'cause this assessment's grim.


Don’t shoot the messenger.

I thought Kerry did very, very well; and I thought Bush did poorly–much worse than he is capable of doing. Listen: If I were just a normal guy–not Joe Political Junkie–I would vote for Kerry. On the basis of that debate, I would. If I were just a normal, fairly conservative, war-supporting guy: I would vote for Kerry. On the basis of that debate.

And I promise you that no one wants this president reelected more than I. I think that he may want it less.

Let me phrase one more time what I wish to say: If I didn’t know anything–were a political naïf, being introduced to the two candidates for the first time–I would vote for Kerry. Based on that infernal debate.

As I write this column, I have not talked with anyone about the debate, and I have listened to no commentary. I am writing without influence (which is how I try to do my other criticism, by the way). What I say may be absurd in light of the general reaction–but so be it.

I’d like to share with you some notes I made during the debate. You may recall that I offered similar scribbles from the two conventions.

Bush “won the stride.” By that I mean that he crossed the center of the stage first, to shake his opponent’s hand. In 1980, Reagan strode over to shake Carter’s hand–and utterly surprised him. Carter was sunk almost from that moment.

Kerry must be darned tall–he made Bush look pretty short. Same as the Bush 41-Dukakis gap? Not sure.

As he began, Kerry spoke clearly, and at a nice pace. He was disciplined about the clock. I wasn’t nuts about those double fists he made–but he relaxed them as the evening wore on.

Kerry went right to the alliances. He emphasized the importance of such relationships. At least you can’t accuse him of succumbing to Republican mockery on the subject, of shucking this core conviction of his.

Bush, throughout the evening, as Kerry spoke, had that pursed and annoyed look. I think it must have driven many people crazy. (I happen to love his whole battery of looks–but I’m weird.) Also, the president did his eye-closing thing, just a little. Could have been worse.

Furthermore, Bush sounded very Texan–I mean, extremely. More Texan, more drawly, more twangy than usual. I think the more tired he is–and, as a rule, the later in the day it is–the more Texan he sounds.

He was right to say that the enemy understands what is at stake in Iraq–bingo. In fact, Bush was never stronger than in the opening rounds of the debate.

Kerry was smart to mention all those military bigwigs who support him. We conservatives roll our eyes when we hear this; sure, Kerry can roll out about ten; we can roll out about ten thousand. But this support for Kerry will be news to many Americans.

The senator seemed to rattle the president, about 15 minutes in–and he stayed rattled. Also, the president was on the defensive almost all the time. Rarely did he put Kerry on the defensive. Kerry could relax, and press.

I was hoping that Bush would put Kerry on trial–make him the issue. Sure, Bush is the incumbent. But it can be done.

Kerry was effective in talking about parents who have lost sons or daughters in the war. Bush was fairly good, later, too–but not quite as good, I thought. (These are all “I thoughts.”)

Although the two candidates had the same amount of time, Kerry got many, many more words in. And they weren’t rushed words. Kerry spoke at a good, measured pace all through.

Bush said, “We’re makin’ progress” a hundred times–that seemed a little desperate. He also said “mixed messages” a hundred times–I was wishing that he would mix his message. He said, “It’s hard work,” or, “It’s tough,” a hundred times. In fact, Bush reminded me of Dan Quayle in the 1988 debate, when the Hoosier repeated a couple of talking points over and over, to some chuckles from the audience (if I recall correctly).

Staying on message is one thing; robotic repetition–when there are oceans of material available–is another.

When Kerry said that our people in the military didn’t have enough equipment, Bush was pretty much blasé. He showed no indignation. He might have said, “How dare you? How dare you contend that I am leaving our fighting men and women defenseless!”

I hate to say it, but often Bush gave the appearance of being what his critics charge he is: callow, jejune, unserious. And remember–talk about repetition!–I concede this as someone who loves the man.

When he talked about Iraq, he ran the risk of sounding Pollyanna-ish–a little head-in-the-sand-ish. Bush is not. But he might have left that impression.

And why didn’t he do more to tie the Iraq war to 9/11? To the general War on Terror? Why didn’t he remind people that this is a war of self-defense–that, after 9/11, we couldn’t go back to the days of episodic strikes, and law enforcement, and intelligence gathering?

And why didn’t he shove Kofi Annan down Kerry’s throat? “My allegiance is not to Mr. Annan; my allegiance is to the American people. The secretary-general has called our war illegal. Nuts to him.”

Kerry kept mentioning Bush’s father–how good he was, as compared with 43. Why didn’t Bush let loose the significant fact that Kerry voted against the 1991 Gulf War?

When it came time to mention our allies in the Iraq campaign, Bush mentioned only Blair and the Polish premier. That made it seem like a pathetically short list–no Italy, no Spain, no Australia.

In fact, it was Kerry who had to bring up Australia!

When Moderator Lehrer and Kerry were talking about American casualties, Bush might have brought up the 9/11 casualties–and the casualties we might have incurred had we not acted against Saddam Hussein. “We ran the risk of suffering a lot more deaths if we had let Saddam remain in power.”

Look, I’m not Monday-morning quarterbacking here. This is not simple esprit d’escalier. This is all basic.

Bush could have mentioned that Saddam was a great harborer and funder of terrorists. He let Kerry get away with saying that Iraq and terror had nothing to do with each other.

Why did Bush keep requesting a special 30 seconds to say the same thing over and over?

Kerry used Secretary Powell against Bush repeatedly, and effectively–same as he used 41 against him. Bush never parried.

I’m thinking that Bush didn’t respect Kerry enough. That he didn’t prepare enough. That he had kind of a disdain for the assignment–”For gooness’ sake, the American people are with me. They know I’m doin’ the necessary. They’re not going to dump me for this phony-baloney.”

Well, they may opt for the phony-baloney.

I had a feeling that, as the debate progressed, Kerry felt very lucky to be hit with so little. To be relatively untouched.

On other occasions, Bush has been extremely persuasive in talking about the “risks of action” versus the “risks of inaction.” Could have used that–to remind people of the choices he faced.

I have a feeling that Bush could have done just the same–exactly the same, no better, no worse–with zero preparation. With no practice at all. Just wingin’ it.

Kerry said, “I’ve never wavered in my life.” That’s ridiculous. Who doesn’t waver in his life?

Strangely enough, it was Bush who got bogged down in detail–trying to remember detail–not Kerry, who was good on generalities (as well as details).

So when Bush talks about Iran and North Korea, he gets all ally-loving and anti-unilateralist? He gets all, “Be my guest, Jacques and Gerhard”? Bush may be right; and he may have been trying to show his flexibility; but I think this can confuse the average voter.

And his answer on North Korea is to tout Jiang Zemin, that beast? (At least Scowcroft and Eagleburger should be proud.)

From this debate, you would never know that Kerry is one of the most famous, or infamous, doves and lefties in American politics–lefter than Ted Kennedy, lefter than Hillary. He seemed positively Pattonesque, at times. So now he praises Ronald Reagan! A fabulously disingenuous performance.

Toward the end, Bush mentioned SDI (though weakly). Hurrah.

His pronunciation of “Vladimir” was priceless.

His pronunciation of “mullahs” as “moolahs” was a little less fun–more silly.

Ah, so it’s Kerry who mentions George Will! And favorably!

Oh, Bush could have killed Kerry on the Patriot Act. Just killed him. Didn’t happen.

Kerry’s closing statement was superb–couldn’t have made better use of his time. You almost didn’t recognize the Massachusetts liberal we have known for 30 years.

Bush was weary–harmfully weary, I think. He let a million opportunities go by. You can’t exploit them all, no. We all kick ourselves, after some public performance. But Kerry, it seemed to me, let not one opportunity go by. And he perceived some that I hadn’t caught.

Yeah, he screwed up a couple of times: got the “break it, buy it” line wrong; said “Treblinka” instead of “Lubyanka.” But that was small beer.

And you know what? The worst thing about Kerry is not that he is inconsistent; not that he is a flip-flopper. The worst thing about him is that he is a reflexive leftist, who has been wrong about nearly everything important his entire career. Nuclear freeze, anybody? Solidarity with the Sandinistas?

This is a man who called the Grenada invasion–carried out by his now-hero Reagan–”a bully’s show of force against a weak Third World nation.” His view of Grenada was no different from Ron Dellums’s.

Friends, I have no doubt that this little reaction column of mine will disappoint many of you. I’m sorry. I have called George W. Bush a Rushmore-level president. I believe history will bear that out; and if it doesn’t, history will be wrong. I think that Bush’s reelection is crucial not only to this country but to the world at large. I not only think that Bush is the right man for the job; I have a deep fondness–love, really–for the man, though I don’t know him.

But tonight (I am writing immediately post-debate) did not show him at his best. Not at all. He will do better–I feel certain–in subsequent debates. I also worry that they count less.


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