Just Above Sunset
October 3, 2004 - The Day After













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The major news event of the week seems to be the first presidential debate, and previously it was suggested that one wait a day or two for things to settle down, and then the press will tell us what to think.

So here it is.

A round-up of amusing reaction…

James Wolcott suggests that what many noted, how defensive, angry (peevish), petulant and, as mentioned above, that how whiny the president seemed as he had to listen to his challenger, may be the natural result of the world he has carefully created for himself.

 

… Bush has been wheeled out into forums where no one can dare question or contradict his majesty, where he can lean forward and repeat ad nauseam his patented soundbites. Last night I believe we saw the ugly comeback of the private face of Bush - the irritable expressions he flashes subordinates when he's presented with information he doesn't like or feels someone's taken up too much of his time or is pressed to explain himself to people he shouldn't have to explain himself to because he's the president and fuck you. The notion that Bush is "likeable" has always been laughable. It takes a Washington pundit to be that dumb. He's an angry, spoiled, resentful little big man - I use "little big man" in the Reichian sense of a small personality who puffs himself up to look big through bluster and swagger but remains a scheming coward inside - and next to a genuinely big man like Kerry, shrunk before the camera's eyes.

Kerry achieved a lot of things last night, and one of them was shifting the focus for future debates. In the two debates to come, political junkies and media analysts aren't going to be measuring Kerry to see if he's "up for the job." He proved that he was last night. No, they're going be trained like birders on Bush's demeanor and body language to see if we get another outbreak of the peevish twitchies.

Frankly, I'm amazed by this reversal of fortune. Bush let Kerry get to him. I truly thought Bush would stick to the Reagan playbook and genially shrug off Kerry's criticisms with a grin and a quip, but he's a greater mass of insecurities and arrogant entitlements than even I imagined. I pity the fools who have to prep Bush for the next debate. Because they're sure going to have one pissy pupil on their hands.

 

Well, yes. The Bush leadership style was discussed here: May 9, 2004 - The CEO President (folks are getting nervous) - and he did once say when you’re president you don’t owe anyone explanations.  "I'm the President of the United States," Bush told a reporter last year.  "I don't feel like I have to explain myself to anybody."  (Bob Woodward on Sixty Minutes, discussed in depth here: September 14, 2003 Opinion - Leadership, Management Theory and Saying You're Sorry or That You Need Help)

Well, sometimes you do.

Ciro Scotti, in Business Week of all places, thinks so -

 

Besides that, he's the President and has led the nation at a time of enormous peril and uncertainty (some of it, arguably, of his own making). Love him or detest him, he sits at the desk where the buck makes its last stop.

But in Coral Gables, Fla., last night, Bush looked -- at least for the first half of the debate -- like Elmer Befuddled, a commander-in-chief not in command.

Perhaps what was so unnerving was that Bush found himself in a foreign-policy debate with a seasoned politician who was espousing the same sort of measured, internationalist approach to a dangerous world that was the hallmark of his father's Presidency. Debating the security and future of the nation on live national television isn't easy -- but debating your Dad is downright scary.

… When Kerry, methodically making his case like the prosecutor he once was, said, "This President has made a colossal error of judgment" by invading Iraq, Bush looked like a 1960s teenager called on the carpet for cracking up the family Oldsmobile. At that moment, it was hard not to get the impression that young George wanted to be anyplace but where he found himself.
The poignancy of a man ill-prepared for and overwhelmed by his job was never more apparent than when Bush said, "I never wanted to commit troops. When we were debating in 2000, I never dreamed I'd have to do that."

The message that Kerry hammered home was that, in fact, Bush did not have to "do that," did not have to send our soldiers -- at least not to Iraq.

But Bush, the onetime black sheep of his family, wanted to wipe away the "wimp factor" stain that his old man had left on the Bush clan. And so he rebelled against the family mantra of prudence in all things. Last night, he looked for all the world like a sputtering screwup -- again.

 

Okay, the terms shifted.  Scotti casts this not as the problems of an isolated executive, or monarch, but as the problem of an errant kid caught red-handed by the stern father.

The family metaphor? Paul Brownfield is the Los Angeles Times spins that a different way in In a Rigid Setting, Two Projections of the Father Image as he argues these two guys are each trying to become want Americans want in a president – a father figure.

 

Who's the daddy, at a time when the electorate is having nightmares about unseen, vaguely understood enemies? Is it President Bush, with his look-straight-into-the-camera, folksy masculinity, the daddy who pats you on the head, gives you a slogan that isn't terribly helpful and keeps saying, though you're not sure why, that life is "hard work"?

"I just know how this world works!" Bush said at one point, like a TV dad cutting off discussion at a dinner table.

Or is it the patrician-looking Kerry, who during this campaign has suffered from an innate reserve and the withering spin of the Bush people that he's a waffler? Standing next to, or at least 10 feet from, Bush, he actually came across on TV as with-it, engaged and informed — a father who might actually know best.

… Bush came across as suddenly less qualified to be Daddy than he has been.

Bush did look into the camera as much as he did at moderator Jim Lehrer, which reinforced his personableness in contrast to Kerry's more studied manner.

But words continually fail Bush. Mostly because he doesn't try very many. With the TV cameras trained on the stripped-down debate stage, his bare-bones communication style sometimes played as monotonous rather than resolute. He repeatedly said the situation in Iraq was "hard work." He said it 10 times, until it no longer seemed like anything so much as a network time-killer. He said this: "I wake up every day thinking about how best to protect us. There's a lot of people working hard."

 

Yep, pretty lame.  But I’m not sure we all see ourselves as frightened children who need a good daddy to make things all better.  Still, it is an interesting take.  And the late Robert Young in the fifties television series “Father Knows Best” was a pleasant symbol of reassurance.  John Kerry channeling Robert Young?  No, that’s just too silly.

Eleanor Clift at Newsweek is less prone to such flights of fancy and offers this more basic take on matters -

 

Republicans thought they had the race wrapped up. All their candidate had to do was repeat his road-tested slogans. But 90 minutes of Bush is a long time. There's a reason why he has held fewer press conferences than any other modern president. He is incapable of conceptual thinking, and he came across as agitated and annoyed that more was expected of him now that he's the self-styled "war president." He repeatedly said he is "working hard" and "it's hard work," as though that alone should silence his critics.

If Republicans were overconfident going into the debate, Democrats had begun preparing themselves for defeat. Kerry had given up so much ground that he was close to being written out of the race. Voters had absorbed the image of Kerry as a flip-flopper without core convictions. A very different Kerry showed up in the debate hall. He was calm and disciplined while Bush was "slouching and praying for the light to go on so he wouldn't have to think of anything else to repeat," said a Democratic strategist.

 

He is incapable of conceptual thinking?  That’s tad harsh, but Amy Sullivan, like Wolcott, agrees he was agitated and annoyed, because the man is just used to having his way -

 

… people are all atwitter about Bush's twitchy and grouchy demeanor while he listened to Kerry. I didn't think it was all that surprising--it's the real George W. Bush. But I think his tendency to become annoyed when challenged has been made much much worse by the bubble he's been kept in for the past four years. No one on his staff talks to him like that. He's just not used to direct verbal pounding. Even his campaign appearances out among "real Americans" are so carefully controlled that if someone gets through the loyalty pledge to actually step up and challenge him, they're tackled and dragged away in a matter of seconds. Bill Clinton--who used to encounter all manner of hecklers on the campaign trail--was a master at sparring with protesters and putting them in their place while defending himself. Maybe that kind of practice would have been good for Bush.

 

Too late now.  And frankly, no matter how much practice one gets, this is a matter of character, of innate temperament, of how one most naturally responds to being challenged.  No amount of practical experience would make a difference.  There is a whole body of medical literature on how temperament, in this sense, is something you are born with, and it cannot easily be changed.  Of course there are some psychotropic medications that could be useful here – and someone should tell Karl Rove that Prozac might be useful now, for the boss.  But Prozac won’t turn Bush into a relaxed, glib and feisty Bill Clinton of the right.  You need the raw material to work with.  And it’s not there.

What about the right?

Jay Nordlinger at the National Review - one MAJOR Bush fan, is pretty unhappy as he reports back to the neoconservatives on what happened this week.

See Don’t Shoot the Messenger…
… ’cause this assessment’s grim.

This is a long analysis, but note these excerpts:

 

I thought Kerry did very, very well; and I thought Bush did poorly — much worse than he is capable of doing. Listen: If I were just a normal guy — not Joe Political Junkie — I would vote for Kerry. On the basis of that debate, I would. If I were just a normal, fairly conservative, war-supporting guy: I would vote for Kerry. On the basis of that debate.

And I promise you that no one wants this president reelected more than I. I think that he may want it less.

Let me phrase one more time what I wish to say: If I didn't know anything — were a political naf, being introduced to the two candidates for the first time — I would vote for Kerry. Based on that infernal debate.

… The senator seemed to rattle the president, about 15 minutes in — and he stayed rattled. Also, the president was on the defensive almost all the time. Rarely did he put Kerry on the defensive. Kerry could relax, and press.
I was hoping that Bush would put Kerry on trial — make him the issue. Sure, Bush is the incumbent. But it can be done.

… Friends, I have no doubt that this little reaction column of mine will disappoint many of you. I'm sorry. I have called George W. Bush a Rushmore-level president. I believe history will bear that out; and if it doesn't, history will be wrong. I think that Bush's reelection is crucial not only to this country but to the world at large. I not only think that Bush is the right man for the job; I have a deep fondness — love, really — for the man, though I don't know him.

But tonight (I am writing immediately post-debate) did not show him at his best. Not at all. He will do better — I feel certain — in subsequent debates. I also worry that they count less.

 

Even for those of us who do not think Bush is a “Rushmore-level president” and don’t love the man, this assessment is startling.

Sidney Blumenthal, on the left, oddly enough has an analysis that doesn’t invoke Mount Rushmore or “Father Knows Best” or metaphors of dysfunctional families.  Of Bush he says skepticism, pragmatism and empiricism are his enemies.  The argument is, really, that Bush's epistemology is faulty.  Say what?  Yep, this is a deconstruction of underlying philosophic assumptions.  If that’s your thing, you might read his analysis Faith vs. reason, which has the subtitle “Kerry gains the upper hand in a debate as significant for its substance as for what it revealed about Bush.”

Here are some excerpts: (my emphases)

 

After months of flawless execution in a well-orchestrated campaign, President Bush had to stand alone in an unpredictable debate. He had traveled the country, appearing before adoring preselected crowds; delivered a carefully crafted acceptance speech at his convention; and approved tens of millions of dollars in TV attack commercials to belittle his opponent. His much-touted charisma was a reflection of the anxiety and wishful thinking of the people since Sept. 11. In the lead, Bush believed he had only to assert his superiority to end the contest once and for all.

But onstage the incumbent president ran out of programmed talking points. Unable to explain the logic for his policies, or think on his feet, he was thrown back on the raw elements of his personality and leadership, and he revealed even more profound issues than the policies being debated.

Every time he was confronted with ambivalence, his impulse was to sweep it aside. He claimed he must be followed because he is the leader. Fate in the form of Sept. 11 had placed authority in his hands as a man of destiny.

Skepticism, pragmatism and empiricism are his enemies. Absolute faith prevails over open-ended reason, subjectivity over fact. Those who do not pray at his altar of certainty are betrayers of the faith, not to mention the troops. Belief in belief is the ultimate sacrament of his political legitimacy.

… Bush's face was a transparent mirror of his emotions. His grimaces exposed his irritation, frustration and anger at being challenged. Lacking intellectual stamina and repeating his talking points as though on a feedback loop, he tried to close argument by blind assertion. With no one interrupting him, he protested, "Let me finish" -- a phrase he occasionally deploys to great effect before the cowed White House press corps.

For Bush, certainty equals strength. His facial expressions exposed his exasperation at having to hear an opposing view. As he accused Kerry of being contradictory, it was obvious that he was peeved at being contradicted.

Kerry responded with a devastating deconstruction of Bush's epistemology. Nothing like this critique of pure reason has ever been heard in a presidential debate. "It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong," said Kerry. "It's another to be certain and be right, or to be certain and be moving in the right direction, or be certain about a principle and then learn new facts and take those new facts and put them to use in order to change and get your policy right. What I worry about with the president is that he's not acknowledging what's on the ground, he's not acknowledging the realities of North Korea, he's not acknowledging the truth of the science of stem cell research or of global warming and other issues. And certainty sometimes can get you in trouble."

… Bush lost more than control in the first debate. He lost the plot.

 

And what plot would that be?  The narrative where we all agree to follow a leader because he must always be right, because he is, after all, our leader, and if he weren’t right he wouldn’t be our leader would he?  Tautology can be fun.

And if certainty equals strength, then someone should have told the captain of the unsinkable Titanic.  Reduce speed in a field of icebergs.  Only a wimp and waffler would do that – you know, someone with a bad attitude.

So on we steam at full speed, happily accepting the tautology of power, in the fog, in the dark, but always making progress.

Don’t you sometimes just hate metaphors?

___

Footnote on Metaphors:

Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, likes them.

Don't you sometimes just hate metaphors?

Hell, no! I live for them! The older I get, the more I realize that the sublime appreciation of earthly metaphor may be the closest any of us are likely to come to spending eternity with 72 virgins! (Why anyone would want to do that is beyond me; but hey, it's just a metaphor!)

And I do especially like that Titanic one you conjured up. Was it the Titanic's captain or was it someone else that announced just before the maiden voyage, something to the effect that "not even God can sink this ship"?

This was obviously before anyone had perfected the fine art of those "lowered expectations" we've been hearing so much about lately. Had that guy been better at it, his ship would today be a hotel in some exotic port, just as if the Bush campaign were better at it, their spin doctors would not have spent all day Friday spinning out of control.

But I'm surprised I haven't yet heard the metaphor that says, the more the emperor insists on holding court with citizens vetted for their loyalty, the more humongous a letdown it will be when he is forced to grant an audience to some guy who very publicly informs him, in front of all his subjects, that he's wearing no clothes!

I'm sure it's wishful thinking, but I do also hope in a few weeks to hear the one about the "Humpty Dumpty" campaign, what with him in a failed attempt at "reinvention" ("They told me I looked annoyed in the first debate, and that I kept repeating myself, so I guess I just have to stop that"), but after being cast as a "flip-flopper" by one and all, none of his horses and men will be able to get the campaign train off the ground again. (Don't you sometimes just love mixed-metaphors?)

Which reminds me about one of those tiny but precious moments in last night's debate, when Bush said something about how a commander-in-chief shouldn't send out "mexed messages", then corrected it quickly to "mixed messages."

I'm starting to think there may be a God after all, and that maybe He really isn't very fond of George W. Bush.

 

Nope, no God out there.  Just balance – as there seems to be some reciprocity in the universe after all.  Things eventually fall back to their most natural state – probably entropy or something at work, as the energy needed to maintain any artifice finally flags.  In this case, the artificial construct – Swagger Man keeps us safe with his steely gaze and the French hang their heads in abject shame at themselves – is collapsing under its own weight, and everyone sees it.  And this, oddly enough, may be a relief to the president, as hyper-manly posing for so long is, of course, hard work.  You could ask Arnold Shwarzenegger about that.  Arnold knows.

The president’s burden may soon be lifted - and he can then return to being a smirking prankster, mostly harmless, the family goofball, but at least comfortable with himself.































 
 
 
 

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
 
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