Oct. 3, 2004. 01:00 AM
Kerry came across as strong and even presidential, while Bush appeared petulant and almost inarticulate at times
In the run-up to last Thursday's presidential debate, we were repeatedly told that George W. Bush had the edge: His warm, folksy approach allowed him to connect with people, while Democratic challenger John Kerry was regarded as cold and cerebral.
What chance would Kerry have, then, against a down-to-earth president who came across to voters as someone they could have a beer with, or turn to for comfort when they lost their dog?
We were also told presidential debates are not determined by substance; Richard Nixon lost in 1960 because of his 5 o'clock shadow, while Al Gore was said to lose in 2000 because he sighed too many times.
But when the media pundits were finally cleared off the stage and the real show began, an odd thing happened: A real debate broke out.
To the surprise of many, Kerry came across as strong and even presidential, while Bush appeared faltering, confused, petulant and almost inarticulate at times. He seemed like a schoolboy who'd been sent to the front of the class to discuss a book he hadn't read. And to make matters worse, he was obliged to debate a guy who was suddenly coming off like Abe Lincoln.
It hardly seemed fair, leaving Bush twisting in the wind at the front of the class like that for a full 90 minutes. Wouldn't an hour have been punishment enough?
Seeing their president squirm might come as a bit of a shock to many Americans, who may never have really seen him confronted.
Probably no recent president has been as carefully shielded from public scrutiny, or as tightly scripted, as this one.
Bush's occasional ventures beyond the protective confines of the White House compound have generally been to military events or gatherings of pre-cleared Republicans.
He only agreed to appear before the 9/11 commission on condition that he could bring along Vice-President Dick Cheney. The administration apparently feared allowing Bush to go unscripted into a session where some tough questions could come his way. Better to have the more experienced and savvy Cheney on hand in case any heavy mental lifting was required.
Although allowed little access to Bush, the media have been surprisingly pliant, rarely putting tough questions to the administration. Whatever the reason for this — perhaps fear of being attacked as "liberal" — it has allowed the highly organized and aggressive White House spin machine operated by Karl Rove to largely control the agenda and shape the current presidential campaign.
That's why Thursday's debate was so jarring: All of a sudden, Kerry seemed in control, putting Bush on the spot in a way the president really hadn't been before. Lines that Bush has long tossed off breezily without contradiction in front of a sea of military uniforms were abruptly challenged in the debate.
As usual, for instance, Bush suggested his invasion of Iraq was necessary because "the enemy attacked us." But Kerry quickly pointed out that Bush had gotten the wrong enemy, that it was Osama bin Laden who masterminded 9/11 and who got away while U.S. forces invaded Iraq.
Kerry drove home the absurdity of invading Iraq in response to 9/11 by comparing it to invading Mexico in response to Pearl Harbour.
Bush projected his usual optimism about developments in Iraq, which he portrayed as on its way to freedom.
But Kerry cited senior Republicans who've recently acknowledged things are actually deteriorating over there. He quoted Bush's father, who explained in a book his decision not to push into Baghdad in the 1991 Gulf War because "Our troops would be occupiers in a bitterly hostile land." The elder Bush had a point.
Kerry even managed to tell the public some things they probably didn't know, things that help explain the growing resistance to U.S. occupation. He pointed out that the U.S. is currently building 14 military bases in Iraq, and that U.S. troops marching into Baghdad had failed to protect buildings — except for the oil ministry. Kerry noted that these sorts of things leave some Iraqis thinking, "maybe they're interested in our oil."
Some of the best-paid minds in the U.S. are no doubt at work reconstructing the president's image. But we can look forward to two more debates where once again we'll get to watch the most powerful man in the world operating outside the confines of the White House sheltered workshop.
And last week's debate — on national security — was supposed to be Bush's strong suit. As for the next debate, bring it on.