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And The Winner Is . . .
On the first Bush-Kerry debate.


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William F. Buckley Jr.

I was listening to Rush Limbaugh Thursday morning, and he said, “Folks, you want to know about the debate tonight? Well, you don’t have to bother to tune in. What will be reported on Friday morning is that John Kerry walked away with it.”

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Well, that’s not exactly the unanimous verdict, but it’s true that Kerry scored. There were two reasons for this, one personal, the other objective.

Senator Kerry was presentable, polite, informed, combative, and credible. Those who felt that he would crumble, or hoped that he’d do so, waited out the ninety minutes without gratification. He is quick on his feet, his formulations were well rehearsed, and he did as best he could athwart his past contradictions — there was even an apology of sorts for his rotational thoughts on the aid bill to Iraq. Yes, he said, it’s true that I used awkward language in defending what I did, that was my mistake. President Bush’s mistake was in going to war. Neatly done, and effective in redirecting attention from his own lapse, to the lapse of George Bush — going to war with Iraq — which is after all the gravamen of Kerry’s case against Bush.

There wasn’t any notable felicity in language. Kerry is a verbalist, but not a belletrist. This was not Adlai Stevenson talking, but someone who seeks to be president and persuasively suggests himself as qualified.

Now, the objective factor working for Mr. Kerry the other night was, simply, the indecisiveness of events in Iraq. The day of the debate, over forty Iraqis had been killed in one of the largest terrorist acts in the war, and American soldiers had been wounded.

President Bush sought his way out of that charnel house by indirect references to the progress we are making, and direct references to the inflexibility of the goal ahead, which, he said often, was freedom for the Iraqi people. Freedom they were entitled to, freedom they aspired to, and freedom of a kind that would affect the region and ultimately, the world itself.

Mr. Bush can be defended in the sense that courage and determination can be defended. But Kerry was able to say things which have become pretty self-evident. He did not say that, in Iraq, we were headed for defeat, but he suggested that a different course of action was necessary.

Ah! A different course of action. Like simply pulling out?

No no. Mr. Kerry reminded us, lest we have forgotten it in the 15 minutes that have gone by since last he referred to it, that he knew what it was to fight for his country inasmuch as he had done so.

Well, what then?

His answer: Another approach to our allies. Bringing them in by a new attitude of cooperation. Reopening a door to the resources of the United Nations. Scheduling one or more summit conferences to make our venture in Iraq more comprehensive. Energizing the morale of the American people by improving the prospect of their own lives. Etc. etc.

Mr. Bush attempted here and there to challenge any soft assumptions encouraged by this vague agenda. He was able to recall how many times we had moved our case before the United Nations, and to cite expressions of hopeful joy by Iraqis, notably the acting prime minister, at the prospects of a new national life without Saddam Hussein.

But he was not able to dismiss Kerry’s objections by any resonant plea of manifest destiny or whatever. The audience was certainly prepared to believe that Iraqis would enjoy freedom. But people know that freedom is frequently abjured, in preference for something else. The commentator who remarked that there was a kind of stability in Husseinland, for which there is nostalgia, was devastatingly correct. Back then, if Hussein didn’t imprison, torture, or shoot you, you were left relatively snug in the ambit of your little world.

What the terrorists are succeeding in accomplishing is a quite general despondency. This is owing to the dramatic danger in Iraq of associating yourself with the interim government, which, it is preached, is representative of the infidel invader, the United States. To sign up with the police in Iraq, to engage in construction work in Iraq, to cooperate in any markedly observable way with the Iraqi government puts you in dire peril of kidnapping, mayhem, and death.

President Bush does not have an easily saleable vision of what to do with that cursed dilemma. It transpires, gradually, that we are relying on the Iraqi people to effect their liberation, because we simply aren’t up to it.

And Kerry was there to say: Let me try it, I’m somebody else. And that got a lot of people to opine that that is a winnable program.



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