Of Beer Bottles and Bush
I am usually a pretty restrained guy. Last Thursday evening during the Presidential Debate was an exception. When President Bush tried to justify the invasion of Iraq by saying - “… the enemy attacked us, Jim, and I have a solemn duty to protect the American people, to do everything I can to protect us.” - I came very close to putting a half-full bottle of Rolling Rock through the screen of my television set.
Maybe it was the beer or maybe it was the fact that the President of the United States had once again told the American people, with a straight face, that Saddam Hussein was complicit in the 9/11 attacks. The Saddam/Al Qaeda connection has been so thoroughly debunked that I could not believe my ears.
As readers of last week’s column might remember, the administration’s continued reliance on the now evident falsehoods surrounding our invasion and occupation of Iraq are a particularly sore point with me. I just chalked up the President’s response to his typical style and tried to focus on the rest of the debate.
I honestly thought that the public and the pundits would eagerly accept the President’s flibs and flubs. His verbal train wrecks are well known and his low threshold for being challenged has been evident for years. Why would this debate be any different?
The press had long let his snippy attitude and awkward live performances slide. The summer prior to 9/11 the Fifth Estate began to sharpen their knives for Mr. Bush, but that tragic and fateful day convinced the media that it was time to be as supportive as possible because the American public needed reassurance. If that meant embracing the rhetorical flaws and occasionally snappish nature of our President while he espoused intermittent logical lapses, so be it.
Thursday night something changed. When the televised split screen shots showed the President’s reactive body language to John Kerry’s criticisms of his performance, all of a sudden people noticed. We saw a man who was extremely uncomfortable and uncomposed. When the President avoided complex answers to detailed questions by repeating pre-scripted tag lines about “certainty” and “leadership”, I was sure that people would eat it up as evidence of Bush’s plain spokeness. Boy, was I wrong.
These are the same characteristics that George Bush has exhibited for at least the last five years. I am a big enough news junkie that I know the petulant eye rolling and the angrily clenched jaw are nothing new. I thought everybody already knew that the President does not suffer contradiction regardless of the validity of the criticism.
It's smells like Karma. Just as the professional punditry managed to convince swing voters in 2000 that Al Gore lost the debates because of his sighs and superior attitude, they are now playing much the same game with W. The difference this time is that challenger, in this case Senator Kerry, actually performed well enough on the matters of fact to earn the mantle of debate-winner on his own merits.
The evidence that the Bush campaign is worried about this poor impression is evidenced by the current well-placed internet rumor that Kerry might have used “illegal” crib sheets. However, while the video in question does not show Kerry producing any such notes when he removes his hand from his breast pocket, if you look carefully, it does show the President unfolding a piece of paper and placing it on his lectern. Karl Rove doesn’t like being on this side of irony.
The Vice Presidential debate is tonight and it should be a doozy. Both Vice President Cheney and Senator Edwards are very strong speakers who can think on their feet. The importance of this debate has now taken on new magnitude with the race tightening, especially in a few key states.
I expect that Mr. Cheney will be asked why he often insists that Saddam helped the 9/11 hijackers. Edwards is likely not going to let that one slide. As for me, I think I’ll stick to Diet Coke just to be safe.
*This column will appear in the NAT on 10/05/04