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Kerry reports (again) for duty

About the author
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also to be published in an expanded edition, in paperback, this August (HarperCollins).

John Kerry, his back to a wall that was partly of his own construction, came out of the first psychodrama – sorry, debate – of the campaign sounding like a commander–in–chief, while George Bush sounded like a slow student scrambling to prove that he, too, knew whereof he spoke. Kerry had stature, and not just in inches. Bush defended his record in his usual fashion, by repeating slogans about the rosiness of things, from Afghan statehood to FBI prowess.

When Kerry accused him of stubbornness, Bush exhibited the point and tried to turn the tables by accusing Kerry of sending “mixed messages”– the sophisticate’s version of “flip–flop.” When Kerry accused him of fighting a diversionary war – a diversion from the necessary war against Osama bin Laden – Bush seemed, indeed, distracted. When Kerry criticized Bush’s ability to defend the country, Bush took up the cudgels for going on the offense.

Psychodrama imposes its rigors on critics as well as practitioners, which is why all assessments are, in part, theater reviews. So be it. Kerry got to the top of his game and stayed there, while Bush rarely rose to the occasion.

It was Kerry more than Bush who mustered a winning impression – no small thing in the land where “optimism” is a political position. Bush tossed a few jelly–beans to his hungry base, directing a pseudo–populist dig against Yale University, his own alma mater, and trying to sound like a hybrid of Moses and Martin Luther King, Jr., with a short–cut peroration: “We’ve climbed the mighty mountain. I see the valley below, and it’s a valley of peace.”

But for much of the ninety minutes, Bush did not resemble a man at the summit of anything. Despite a prior agreement not to show pictures of the candidate who wasn’t speaking at any given moment, the pool camera – in the hands of the Fox Pop network, which is supposed to be more reliable – frequently displayed that while Kerry was holding forth, Bush was grimacing, twitching, staring, steaming, forgetting, striving to unforget and summon up talking–points, and visibly shrinking from Kerry’s uncustomarily sharp sentences. Bush was defensive, plaintive, petulant – a bully who’d finally been called on his bluster, and ended up sounding like Mr. Me–Too.

In the debased discourse that seizes the political class and makes them feel savvy about the campaign, the battle of bar–setting and managed impressions which is probably the most influential – and certainly the most memorable – emanation from such psychodramas, Kerry pulled off the considerable victory of doing “better than expected.” No less a partisan than the ubiquitous right–wing spinmeister William Kristol was heard to say afterward that Kerry had done “pretty well.” Bush was left standing, but barely, repeating his standard applause lines.

To the “undecideds” who were the primary audience, what did Bush offer? From him, one could learn nothing except that everything in his world was going well. Afghanistan was free. In Pakistan, “the A.Q. Khan network has been brought to justice” – White House lingo for a slap on the wrist when it’s a slap administered by our part–time ally, General Musharraf. The more you know about the world, the more evasive Bush not only looked, but sounded. His all–purpose mantra was “hard work” – he used the phrase no fewer than twenty–two times. Was there trouble in Iraq? “Hard work” would do the job. If words were shovels, Bush would be moving mountains. No doubt there are some voters who will be impressed by this sort of thing. But to the casual follower of the news – and casual followers is what the famously undecided tend to be – Iraq looks more like the mountain erupting on American troops, not to mention Iraqis.

To be sure, Kerry was not exactly impeccable. He stepped on some of his more pungent lines. He might have pressed Bush harder about just how awful are on–the–ground conditions in Iraq – he might have mentioned the at least thirty–four children killed in two car bombings earlier in the day in Baghdad. He should have declared bluntly that this president doesn’t know what’s going on on the ground. He should have noted at least once that the president didn’t answer the question. He still lacks the killer instinct.

But Kerry did take the initiative, and he kept it, except when Bush said Kerry would be hard–pressed to win allies’ cooperation when he says that the war was wrong. He accused Bush of outsourcing the attack on Tora Bora that permitted Osama bin Laden to escape.

The big news Kerry made – unnoticed in any after–game commentaries I’ve seen – was to say that in Iraq “we’re building some fourteen military bases there now. And some people say they’ve got a rather permanent concept to them.” As president, he went on: “I will make a flat statement. The United States of America has no long–term designs on staying in Iraq. And our goal in my administration would be to get all of the troops out of there with the minimal amount you need for training and logistics as we do in some other countries in the world after a war to be able to sustain the peace.”

These bases–in–the–building – billions of dollars worth of construction – have hardly been reported. If the press was on the job, Kerry’s sharp line of demarcation from Bush would not have been so easily lost. By his silence in reply Bush tacitly accepted that his own plan does include permanent large–scale bases in the oilfields of Iraq (see this week’s openDemocracy column by Paul Rogers, “What next in Iraq? Follow the oil”). This is a huge strategic difference between the parties.

Do such thunderous realities matter to any or many of the roughly 10% of the country who haven’t yet decided – I almost want to say “refuse to decide”– whom to support? For it was crucially to these distracted, reluctant citizens that Kerry and Bush were in the main speaking. Of course Kerry and Bush also wanted to shore up their own committed supporters. Bush tried to demonstrate that he’s been on the job by rattling off the names of foreign leaders, as if to demonstrate that on–the–job training has worked. But even some of this rang tinny. He couldn’t explain himself very well on North Korea. Asked about whether he’d misjudged Russia’s Putin, whose soul had previously revealed itself to the president, Bush said, “I’ve got a good relation with Vladimir.” Vladimir? Important to remain on a first–name basis with the tsar–in–the–making? Does this impress a yet–to–be–won voter?

Probably not. Nor would it likely impress him or her that Bush did not seem in charge. Bush, who rarely if ever permits himself to come face–to–face with a critic, plainly resented the experience. Isn’t he the President? Doesn’t that mean never having to give reasons why you do what you do, let alone say you’re sorry? His pouts said: Who is this goddamned upstart – a mere twenty–year senator –who dares second–guess me? Of course Bush takes umbrage at being told that his Iraq policy adds up to a “colossal error.” Don’t these underlings understand that he is the president of the United States, the leader of the free world, the last best hope of the faith–based?

The question of the hour is, of course, not how relatively well–informed intellectuals assess the performances, but how others do. In the immediate aftermath, Kerry swept the network polls – beating Bush 43–28% among uncommitted voters (CBS), 45–36 among all debate viewers, with a twenty–point margin among independents (ABC), and 53–37 among all debate viewers who are also registered voters (CNN).

If this isn’t panic–time in the White House war rooms, it would only be because their grasp of domestic political reality is as shaky as their grasp of Iraq.

But perhaps the bigger strategic adjustments are yet to come. The Bush campaign has incessantly called Kerry a flip–flopper who does not know what he stands for. The challenger didn’t come across that way. He spoke plain sentences. He made his consistency plausible. How now does Bush attack him? More dirt? Different dirt? Now, headquarters may have to accelerate preparations for Plan B: steal it.

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