Jewish World Review Oct. 6, 2004/21 Tishrei 5765
Bush muffs a debate ... the media applauds
Mike Murphy, GOP strategist and John McCain's Magic Bus spokesman/confidante during the Arizona senator's failed 2000 presidential campaign, was obviously correct writing on The Weekly Standard's daily website last week that no matter how well George Bush and John Kerry fared in the Sept. 30 debate the media would celebrate the Democrat's resurgence in the sprint to November's election.
But Murphy and fellow Bush partisans certainly weren't prepared for the President's lackluster performance. Theatrically, which is what counts, Bush was really lousy, and I imagine his handlers are working overtime to correct these flaws for the next two rounds with Kerry. The President wakes up with the roosters and consequently runs out of gas after about 8 p.m., and knowing this you'd think that Karen Hughes or Karl Rove would've insisted the candidate ingest a Jolt cola or cup of coffee in preparation for an appearance before some 65 million potential voters. Bush looked exhausted, ticked off and for some reason slouched at his lectern, magnifying the height difference between him and the windsurfer from Boston, Nantucket and Idaho.
Bush is a superb politician and one expected better: He was far more substantive, if excessively repetitive, in explaining his view of foreign policy than Kerry, who offered little more than pledging to address the United Nations, that morally pristine body of international leaders, and leading a hootenanny, staring off with "Why Can't We Be Friends?" There were no major Ford/Romney gaffes on either side: Kerry was wrong in saying New York City's subway was closed down for the Republican convention, Bush pronounced "mullahs" as "moolahs," which was actually kind of funny and probably true.
What made me cringe was when the President, as is his wont, called the fanatic terrorists bent on killing as many Americans as possible, "folks." Bush: "We're facing a group of folks who have such hatred in their hearts, they'll strike anywhere with any means." Get a grip, man, I thought you skipped the loosey-goosey 60s when "folks" passed joints around, compared love beads and wondered whether Paul McCartney was really dead. My friend James Taranto, who writes the indispensable "Best of the Web" each weekday for The Wall Street Journal's opinionjournal.com, countered that Bush's use of "folks" was not a "hippyism" but instead just a Texan colloquialism. Maybe so, but it struck me that Bush goofed in labeling these kooks as "folks," (rather than "zealots") the kind of people you'd invite to a picnic or tailgate party instead of rounding up for a firing squad.
Semantics, I suppose, on the order of journalists who refer to a "spokesperson" even when it's clear that the person in question is a man or woman.
Kerry was at his game-show best from the start, trying to shiv his opponent by praising former President Bush's large coalition in the Gulf War, even though the Massachusetts senator voted against expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. The chutzpah meter went kablooey when Kerry spoke approvingly about James Baker III, saying, "It wasn't until former Secretary of State Jim Baker and General [Brent] Scowcroft and others pushed publicly and said you've got to go to the U.N., that the president finally changed his mind his campaign has a word for that and went to the United Nations."
Most reporters ignored this hypocrisy Baker is likened by left-wingers as akin to one of Hitler's yes-men for his role in the Florida recount but not The New York Sun. The daily's Oct. 1 editorial read, in part, "By our lights, it is a strategy that can only boomerang on the senator. The very Mr. Baker that Mr. Kerry is piously evoking as the defender of the United Nations is being vilified in Democratic attack ads as a stooge of the Saudis. Mr. Baker is widely unpopular in the American Jewish community for trying to bully Israel into dealing with terrorists. The president's father had splendid alliances in the first Gulf War, with a lot of dictators and Europeans. But he lost the election in 1992, in part precisely because he left Saddam Hussein in power and failed to make clear that America stood strong around the world for freedom."
G.H.W. Bush also lost in '92 because the economy was just starting to recover by Election Day, his disdain for pressing flesh with voters (unlike his eldest son), Ross Perot's peripatetic third-party candidacy, raising taxes after famously promising he wouldn't, and Bill Clinton's vastly superior political skills. Bush therefore demoralized his putative base not only to the point of staying home, but converting some supporters like the Times' William Safire and, to his regret, one of my own brothers to the Clinton-Gore ticket.
Kerry also told fibs about Colin Powell that played well and spoke well of Laura Bush.
My impression immediately after the debate, aside from chagrin that Bush wasn't adequately prepared for the nature of the appearance it's not as if he hasn't had practice was just how scary a Kerry administration would be. Jokes about Kerry's affinity for all things French are worth a chuckle, and his continual Vietnam references just irritating, but when he spoke about a "global test" for foreign policy that got into Stephen King territory. Holy smokes, this guy makes Jimmy Carter look like George Patton!
Just imagine, say eight months from now, Kerry's called at his White House living quarters by John Sasso (the commander-in-chief was sleeping in after an all-night jam session with Celebrity Laureate Bruce Springsteen) with the news that terrorists had just bombed the Sears Tower in Chicago and initial estimates show that 7000 people were killed.
"Teresa, lovey, I do apologize, but cancel that caviar brunch with Jacques and Yasser and Barbra, I have to convene a summit with those cads who planned this attack! Maybe Holbrooke or Biden can talk them out of doing it again!"
Kerry was at his most disingenuous when he claimed that Bush was neglecting homeland security in favor of giving tax cuts to the people who provide the vast amount of revenue for the federal treasury. It must've gnawed at Bush that he couldn't say, for obvious reasons, that if he's so inept at protecting American citizens, then why hasn't there been another devastating attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11.
Times columnist David Brooks, the paper's milquetoast conservative answer to paranoid but firm op-ed colleagues like Paul Krugman, tried his best last Saturday to spin the Bush debate debacle. He wrote: "In weak moments [one senses that Brooks lurches from "weak moment" to "weak moment" on a daily basis], I think the best ticket for this country would be Bush-Kerry. The two men balance each other out so well. Kerry can't make a decision. Bush makes them too quickly. Kerry changes his mind by the month [or the latest focus group results]; Bush almost never changes his mind."
I can spell "wishy-washy." Can Brooks?
Anyway, he concludes the column on a more truthful note: "I suspect that the reason Bush's approval ratings hover around 50 percent, despite a year of carnage in Iraq, is because of the reason many of us in the commentariat [what, do pundits hang out with each other, trading witticisms and book sales?] don't like to talk about: in a faithful and moralistic nation, Bush's language has a resonance with people who know that he is not always competent, and who know that he doesn't always dominate every argument, but who can sense a shared cast of mind."
Indeed, David, let's drink to the ordinary American!
At least Brooks recognized that Bush blew an opportunity to send Kerry into the arms of Michael Dukakis and Fritz Mondale. The New York Post's John Podhoretz, who remains that tabloid's resident political ostrich, just didn't get it. Writing the day after the debate, Podhoretz was in undeniable denial. "What was important last night was the high tedium factor. It hurts Kerry. Boredom isn't going to do anything to change the dynamics of the race in Kerry's favor. As for the president, because he's leading and because he has the enthusiastic support of his Republican base, Bush needs only to reassure people between now and Nov. 2. So tedium actually works for him in this context."
Love the cheerleading, Mr. Pod, but you're out of the loop. Granted, Newsweek a magazine that's as pro-Kerry as Terry McAuliffe and the Times was so enthused over the Senator's showing that it conducted a poll immediately after the debate and surprise came up with a Kerry lead, one that isn't likely to stand unless Bush falls asleep during the next debate on Friday. But "tedium" doesn't work in Bush's favor. And neither does a lack of preparation.
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JWR contributor "Mugger" -- aka Russ Smith -- is the editor-in-chief and CEO of New York Press (www.nypress.com). Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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© 2002, Russ Smith