It could have been the greatest night in American political and television history.
Early on in last night’s debate Al Gore marched straight up to George W. Bush and intruded into his space. Gore planted his feet and stared down at the Texas governor like a penitentiary enforcer looking at a new cellmate who was trying to take the top bunk. Those are the facts. Another fact is that George W. Bush turned to see Gore “staring daggers” at him, in the words of the New York Times. Bush responded with a sort of disgusted-but-surprised “how you doing?” — or something like that — and walked away.
After that, my mind started to wander. Instead of that brief moment where Al Gore looked like an office manager and George W. Bush looked like someone unembarrassed to be caught by the boss while talking at the water-cooler, here’s what I imagined:
“You got a problem with me, Chesty?” asked the Texan.
“As a matter of fact I do,” replied Gore, leaning even deeper into Bush’s personal space.
“Well, if you don’t get out of my face, that’s not going to be your only problem,” Bush said shifting his weight to the balls of his feet, pushing his face up into the vice president’s.
“Oh really?” Gore asked as he puffed out his chest and looked down at Bush like a drill instructor.
“That’s right, Al,” Bush replied with a mixture of a smirk and a wince. “And let me add, you’ve got more than one problem already. Maybe you should have spent less time inventing the *$!^%*% internet and worked a bit more on a mouthwash that could do something about the stink comin’ outta you. Now I know why you had to hold your wife up like that when you kissed her. She musta been dizzier than a fly in a fertilizer factory.”
“It’s go time!”
“Bring it on.”
At this point, Jim Lehrer leaped to his feet, slightly confused because he didn’t know what the vice president wanted him to do. He said, “Gentlemen, this sort of colloquy has been prohibited by the rules. Please take you’re seats.”
“Shut your pie hole, you tea-party skirt!” screamed Bush just before the two men opened fresh cans of whup-ass on each other.
The melee went on for a good ten minutes with both contenders showing much more martial prowess than anyone would expect. The vice president was bigger and had a longer reach. But the Texas governor was wiry and jabbed and moved. Neither wanted — nor was able — to relent or call a truce. Perhaps it was an opportunity to unleash the pent-up stress and rage from the campaign trail. Perhaps it was the adrenaline-fueled realization that a lifetime’s work and generations of family honor were at stake. Surely, no matter what the pundits would say, the guy who won this fight would be the next president of the United States.
Minutes in, Gore had the upper hand. If he could just maintain his chokehold for a few seconds more, the prize would be his. But no, Bush broke out by giving the vice president’s undercarriage a “How’s your father?” with a backwards kick of his heel to the Al Groin.
The audience, which came into the room as mostly liberal swing voters, was now totally transformed. They acted like Taiwanese smugglers at an illegal cockfight, throwing down cash, smoking unfiltered cigarettes, trading betting slips. Viewers at home became transfixed. Feminists discovered, if at least for a moment, that they liked to watch powerful men fight each other; they were both ashamed and thrilled. Naomi Wolf, the alpha-dog theorist herself, had to retire to a fainting couch, the cloud of testosterone spewing from her TV overwhelming her senses. And, finally, the millions of disengaged voters who claimed they wanted policy specifics — but wouldn’t know what to do with a “specific” if they choked on one like a chicken bone — had suddenly become engaged.
The battle raged. Chairs were flipped. Bush climbed a curtain and dropped down on a staggered Gore. The vice president managed to snap back one of Bush’s fingers, only to expose himself to a vicious Texan head butt. Jim Lehrer was nowhere to be found. Al Gore’s Secret Service contingent held back the crowd. It’s not clear whether they were following instructions from the Gore campaign or if they were just eager to see their annoying boss take a pounding…
And then, I snapped back to reality. Alas, it was not to be. The whup-ass cans remained on their shelves; neither Gore nor Bush chose to turn it up a notch. Jim Lehrer continued to defer to Al Gore like the maitre d’ of the Carthage, Tennessee country club. George W. Bush stuck to his lines and Al Gore stuck to his promise to make every single problem in America his number 1 priority. The feminists continued to wonder how the Pat Schroeder and Cybil Shepard juggernauts never took off. The studio audience remained in their seats and stuck to their gitchy-goo, “Ain’t government great?” canned questions. The “undecided” voters corralled by the networks still told their focus-group moderators that they needed to hear a smidgen more about what the candidates would do to fix the broken Bunsen burners in their ninth-graders’ bio classes. All was as expected.
And perhaps, just perhaps, America was the poorer for it.