Just Above Sunset
October 17, 2004 - Bush and Kerry in a last face-off ...

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I missed much of the last presidential debate last Wednesday the 13th – as I was attending a function at Left Bank, a rather respectable faux French restaurant in Pleasant Hill, near Walnut Creek, an hour’s drive northeast of Oakland, California.  I was getting to know the management team I had just joined over mussels and Brie and such – eyeing the Air France tourist posters on the wall, sipping the California equivalent of Rhône, and listening to the piped in Tony Bennett classics in the background, thinking of other times on the real Left Bank.  Oh well.  I think I figured out who the key management players were and what was needed to get along.  But by the time I walked across the street to my bland but clean room at the Courtyard by Marriot and lit a pipe to relax, the debate was almost over.  Danish pipe tobacco, a slight buzz, and politics.  I couldn’t get a sense of what happened.


But then again, neither could my friend Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, as I saw in his email when I got back to Hollywood the next night.


Immediately after it ended, all the Fox folks (including, in this case, Rudy Giuliani) seemed to take it as a given that Bush hit a home run, while all those more sober analysts on CNN seemed to think that Kerry undoubtedly won.  So what was this channel surfer to think?


Well, at about 11:15 pm eastern time, Larry King announced the preliminary results of the CNN instant poll, taken before their poll sample had time to sample the after-debate spin, and it showed Kerry at 52%, Bush at 39%.


Personally, I wasn't that impressed with either of them, but am still once again gratified for the gift of manna. And if there is a God in Heaven who loves his earthling children, this will translate into frosting on Kerry's cake that will last through Election Day, at the very least.


Joseph, my expatriate friend in Paris, sent this to help me out –


Once again, I will risk putting my foot in my mouth and comment on a debate that I have yet to see, so if I get it all wrong, please be kind. My attention is drawn to what appears to be shaping up to be the centerpiece of post debate spin: Bush's statement that he never said that he wasn't concerned about OBL [that Osama fellow], despite the fact that it's on video for all to see and will almost certainly be used in new Kerry ads.


Certainly, Kerry made a few statements that stretch the truth, but from what I've seen and read, they were generally in ways that are technically inaccurate while generally true, or mere oversimplification. This is a politician’s stock and trade. The public doesn't really want to hear the full details of a senate bill. Some of these damn things run 500 pages.


Bush's flub is closer akin to Cheney's statement that he had never met Edwards before the debate, when in fact there is video of them meeting on three separate occasions. This is a dumb lie.


It's a bit like saying "I never had sexual relations with that woman" when you did, and you did it on this year's most popular porn DVD.


What concerns me is not the lie itself, but what kind of character flaw is behind this inclination to say things that are obviously and demonstrably untrue before a national audience.  “Untrue” not as a matter of opinion or interpretation - but as a matter of demonstrable fact.


Perhaps they don't remember the things they said because their beliefs are a lot less consistent from day to day than they would like us to believe, or because like many frequent liars, they cannot keep all the lies straight. I think the truth is worse than that.


These kinds of lies are told because they are expedient in the moment, and because so many lies go politically unpunished that there is no perceived downside. Certainly in American politics today that would seem to be the case. And that's our fault - the public - for looking the other way. A guy could get used to it.


The most troubling aspect, however, is the kind of poor judgment being exercised in telling such a lie, and the possibility that such flawed judgment - the belief that one always will get away with it - might assert itself in more important areas and lead one to disregard certain inconvenient facts. This is largely how were got here. We used to call this "Hubris".


Today, it passes for “confidence.”


Ellen, an old friend near Albany, added more -


Joseph, what I admired is how cleverly the Democrats laid the trap, hoping and perhaps confident that Bush would step into it by lying. The next-day spin is actually more positive for Kerry than the Cheney prayer breakfast footage because every time another news show "sets the record straight," there is Bush saying he is not that worried about Bin Laden - thereby reinforcing the Kerry theme that Bush took his eye off the ball.


The instant "fact checking" that attends the debates, you are right, is actually an anomaly that punishes the political reflex to say the expedient thing, truth be damned. Maybe fact-checking should be expanded more into everyday use.


The Rick in Atlanta tossed this in -


Was I the only one who noticed that Bush seemed to have drop of spit at the corner of his mouth during much the debate? And will someone now launch a site called "http://wasthatreallyspit.com"?  It's a whole new world!


Ah, Rick is referring to this – the idea that Bush was using a hidden earpiece to receive from his advisors the words he was supposed to say, and the bulge you see on his back under his suit coat is a receiver of some sort.  There was no telltale "lump" this week, but the behavior convinced me he was using that again.  There has been, to this time, no evidence that Bush could actually think on his feet, and too dig up facts and examples, no matter how dishonest.  None at all.  How to explain the sudden change in the debates from 1) drifting, incoherent and illogical to 2) scattered and alternatively angry and wildly defensive, to 3) semi-coherence?  Someone better prompting him, as I saw it.  This time, no physical evidence - as the evidence was behavioral.


But I didn’t see much – so I looked for reactions -


Richard Cohen in the Washington Post


For months now I've dropped bets on the presidential election like Hansel (of "Hansel and Gretel") dropped pebbles. For honor and money, I've wagered on George Bush, not because I wanted him to win but rather because I thought he would. Now I'm changing my mind. It's not the tightening polls that have done it -- I knew that would happen -- but rather something I could not have predicted. The president is missing.


The president I have in mind is the funny, good-natured regular guy I once saw on the campaign trail -- a man of surprisingly quick wit and just plain likeability. I contrasted this man to John Kerry, who is as light and as funny as a mud wall, and I thought, "There goes the election."


Where it has mattered most -- the three debates -- Bush has been wooden, ill at ease and downright spooky. He makes bad jokes, cackles at them in the manner of a cinematic serial killer and has lacked the warmth that he not only once had but that I thought would compensate for a disastrous presidency and give him a second -- God help us -- term. In short, he could take over the Bates Motel in an instant.


Living in Hollywood, I like the references to movies – serial killers and Hitchcock’s Psycho (yes, Janet Leigh, the woman from the shower scene passed away this week) – but this is just too true for comfort.


E.J. Dionne also in the Post give us this –


The debates altered the campaign in Kerry's favor because Bush could no longer run and hide from his own record and cast Kerry as a cardboard character. The debates showcased Kerry as presidentially consistent. Bush kept changing his act. He scowled in the first debate. He practically shouted in the second. He pasted a strange smile over the scowl in the third.


And Bush's new message is so old that it is as if he ran across a tattered catalogue for Republican political consultants from the 1980s or early '90s and ordered up a pre-owned campaign plan. You could imagine the text: "Falling behind your Democrat opponent? Don't know what to say? Just call him liberal, liberal, liberal. Compare him with Ted Kennedy. It works every time -- especially if your opponent is from Massachusetts."


Yeah, no one is buying that line.  Who cares?  There are other issues.


Then there’s David Ignatius suggesting the other issues:


Sure, the candidates were coached and rehearsed: Kerry seemed to have a plan for everything, and Bush couldn't stop telling us that it was a hard job and that he was prepared to lead. But in the end, it was delightfully unscripted - a political version of "Survivor," or maybe, "I'd Do Anything."


What Kerry won in these debates was the ability to define himself in his own terms.


A month ago, Bush supporters could trash Kerry almost at will. They could charge that he was a coward who had deliberately wounded himself in combat to get a medal, and the media would weigh the pros and cons as if it were a serious campaign issue. That's much harder now that we've seen Kerry for ourselves.


What Bush lost was the ability to control perceptions. He could repeat his lines about Kerry's being a flip-flopper and a dangerous liberal, but people watching the debate could match these charges against their own sense of the man. Bush could accuse the Democrat of ransoming America to a French veto through some kind of "global test," but there was Kerry to offer an instant rebuttal. The tools of modern politics have been honed, to a frightening extent, so that they can shape perceptions. But the debates neutralized that manipulative power, at least for 270 minutes.


But…  Oh, just go here – October 17, 2004 - Item of Note – and see it doesn’t matter.


So, I missed most of the last debate.  But I get the general idea.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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This issue updated and published on...

Paris readers add nine hours....