Road Kill: The First of the 2004 US Presidential Debates

Terry Sawyer

Bush and his handlers want the election to be a referendum on the war on terror as some kind of skeet shooting, coon skinnin', bare knuckle boxing triathlon.

In "The Dunce", an interview with an old professor of George Bush's, what stuck out most for me was Yoshi Tsurumi's claim that Bush used to make outlandishly cruel and indefensible arguments only to shrug off or spread rumors about any other student who dared to ask him to back up his claims with facts. (Salon.com, 16 September 2004) Sound familiar? In a just world, everyone would think of Bush like the wicked nemesis, Johnny Lawrence in the Karate Kid, so suffused with entitlement that we fling our popcorn into the air when he finally gets his comeuppance.

But with a twang and a wink, and Jesus popping up in every sentence where any sane person would use a comma, Bush Wonder Twin powers himself into the underdog cowboy while Cheney forms into a bucket of ice water. Bush is the reversal of all of our favorite good movie lessons, having every single life failure and character flaw met with more opportunity, having been coddled to the point where his ignorance is riveted static by his karma-violating privilege. Bush is the quitter's winner.

This came to mind while watching the first televised debates for the 2004 Presidential election, when Jim Lehrer asked Bush if he thought the world would be more vulnerable to terrorism if John Kerry won. Bush refuses to even consider this dire hypothetical stating, "No, I don't believe it's going to happen"(Kerry winning, that is). That one must have been for the NASCAR dads, the people who think that the qualities of a good leader can be found in Charles Bronson movies where the only talking required is a pithy quip before you pull the trigger.

Everything in his body language reeks of some middle management desk wrangler's dream about his own masculinity. Look at the way he holds the podium, with one arm gripping the corner like he's the Fonz giving it doggie to Pinky Tuscadero; the way he leans forward and flashes his hands, the sort of testosterone tic most women recognize as the prelude to a bad line. His head does a macho bobble doll roll, he pushes a contemptuous laugh through his nostrils and then he lets the left hand corner of his mouth do a Salvador Dali drip to the floor as if he's doing a lead-lined wad of Skoal. It's the pose he holds throughout much of the debate, a cunning affect to project, an image that attempts to frame the dialogue in terms of a choice between an action-ready Sheriff Lobo torn away from fighting evil to explain hisself to some equivocating pansy.

But Bush's actual debating style is a non-stop cowardly dive for the cubby hole. He recycles his stump speech relentlessly, as if Jim Lehrer just has Tourette's and he's being politely Texan by ignoring the interruption of questions. He stalls frequently, pausing for one of his signature out-of-joint moments of silent wonder. At such moments I always nod along and say out loud "I have no idea how you got there either, friend". When Bush rejoins us in the now, it's to tell America that we'll lose the war on terror if we ever change our minds like the wishy washy Senator. When Kerry answers the charge adroitly, Bush repeats it again and again, retreating into the talismanic redundancies of his impossibly burdened speech coaches.

Resolute incoherence, that's the key. Bush is not a contextualizing kind of guy, and he never takes the opportunity to present the case for Iraq as a specific threat to our security or a central front in the war on terror. He has a palpable distaste for this clash of ideas bullshit, and gives the audience nothing other than the placebo of a big lug daddy to take care of them, no questions asked. I said no questions asked, damn it. Go to your room.

Bush and his handlers want the election to be a referendum on the war on terror as some kind of skeet shooting, coon skinnin', bare knuckle boxing triathalon, and the knotty grain of actual argument gets avoided whenever and wherever possible during the course of the debate. His slimiest rhetorical dodge was a repeated attempt to paint Kerry as someone who hates our fighting men and women, a trick Republicans pull off by equating their own egos with America's soul. "I don't see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send our troops?", Bush said.

The troops and their self-image became the desperate conceit which Bush repeats again and again, stating that the way Kerry speaks is "Not what a commander in chief does when you're trying to lead troops". Bush chooses this willful insincerity because it obliquely refers back to Kerry's protest of the Vietnam War, which allows Bush to reprise his role as hyper-sensitive empath, or "compassionate conservative", if you prefer. Kerry easily brushes off this scummy false dichotomy, making it clear that the true disservice to people in the military is colossal ineptitude in war planning. That doesn't just scuff people's sensibilities, it brings them home in body bags. Are soldiers really so fragile that the slightest sign of vigorous democratic process in their homeland will make them crumble like a goldfish cracker on a baseball cleat? Disagreeing with the President, it seems, isn't just incorrect: it's dangerous. One can hear in Bush's beleaguered disgust that to disagree with him is also probably distinctly unpatriotic.

"My opponent says we didn't have any allies in this war. What's he say to Tony Blair? What's he say to Alexander Kwasniewski of Poland? You can't expect to build an alliance when you denigrate the contributions of those who are serving side-by-side with American troops in Iraq," Bush retorted.

All these hurt feelings. Maybe we should just stop having debates lest somebody need a tissue. This ploy is an example of the southern belle's fake outrage, as if the President and our coalition members will have a fainting spell because this coarse Yankee Kerry dares question a situation in which everybody but the President seems to be able to acknowledge is not going well.

But one of the most frightening moments of the debate for me, which Kerry keenly caught hold of, was when Lehrer asked about the possibly of another preemptive war based on the same premises set forth in Iraq. In the course of Bush's response, he said "But the enemy attacked us". If Kerry has a consistency problem, Bush has a severe reality aversion. A chill ran up my spine. Does Bush secretly believe that Iraq attacked the US on September 11th? Or worse yet, is he living in some melodramatic fantasy where this war transmogrifies into The War against Evil, and we're then subject to his whims?

Kerry should have similarly devoured the President's response to miscalculations in Iraq. Bush won't even grant moderator Lehrer a quote where he seemed to have acknowledged miscalculations. "What I said was that, because we achieved such a rapid victory, more of the Saddam loyalists were around. I mean, we thought we'd whip more of them going in." Nobody but the President believes that the insurgency is made up solely of Saddam's minions and that our real problem in Iraq is that we won the war too quickly.

The only reason the President may have been blindsided is his refusal to seek information sources outside the confines of his claustrophobic cabal. The President is congenitally incapable of ceding any imperfection, even at a moment like this where he "Tarzans", mid-howl, into the wall of the Real. If this election hinges on character (rather than skill or intelligence, as you might think), I can think of no single worse flaw for a leader to have than such suicidal obstinance.

But why is character in our President considered a more important quality than intelligence? I happen to think that children and the retarded, in general, are far more in touch with the gifts of virtue than your average human, and yet I would not vote to elect a person from either category. Speaking of which, my favorite laugh out line in the debate was when Bush ended a rebuttal with, "No, the way to win this is to be steadfast and resolved and to follow through on the plan that I've just outlined." He hadn't given any plan. But he said the word with much conviction.

The last question of the evening focused on Russia's recent whittling away of its citizens' freedoms in the name of fighting terrorists. For a President that paints himself as the world's biggest vending machine of freedom, Bush's response to Putin's shameless seizure of power in Russia was practically like playing footsie with the sour-faced tyrant. Bush has done much to encourage such loose, sloppy and rhetorically deadly usage of terms in the war on terror, where every authoritarian government in the world has been able to destroy freedom in the name of fighting evildoers. Where you might expect outrage at Russia's retreating into a KGB fronted dictatorship, Bush had only lukewarm criticism, soul kiss praise, and a late addition to our enemies list: "I mean, he's also a strong ally in the war on terror. He is — listen, they went through a horrible situation in Beslan, where these terrorists gunned down young school kids. That's the nature of the enemy, by the way. That's why we need to be firm and resolve in bringing them to justice. That's precisely what Vladimir (pronounced "Vladmuhr") Putin understands, as well."

Kerry went a long way to dispelling many of the charges that have plagued him throughout the campaign, particularly indecision and this idea that he has no principles or backbone. For me his most important gain was found in the act of losing his horribly plodding speaking style, where the emotional emphases swish into all the wrong words like a drunk tugging at your collar slobbering, "No, listen. No, listen." Normally Kerry cherishes talking too much to actually savor his applause lines, breaking the rhythm of a deft phrase by scrambling it with addendums. But in the debate, he clipped his own florid excess, and the forum gave his dead delivery a sense of comparative grace, creating the reassuring feeling of having an adult around.

Kerry watched the clock, he ended on his closers, and he avoided his tendency to decentralize his speeches with nosediving tangents that leave his campaign rally workers passing out expresso syringes. He still peddles this myth that everyone is going to want to rally around our fuck up in Iraq once Bush is gone, but I can forgive him this kind of "we're living the worst case scenario" optimism. And who knows, maybe Kerry will be able to parlay the world's collective sigh of relief into something more significant.

In my opinion, Kerry won this first of three debates, but it's difficult to tell whether or not that will make a difference come election day. Because I personally react viscerally to Bush's speaking style, which frequently makes me gasp for air and roll into a ball, gnashing my teeth on my wadded covers. People have already seen the president's impatience for reason, his refusal to deign us with the constipated labor of thinking. For many, this is a sign of his good character because articulate people are all East Coast grifters. For those voters, the first debate won't make a puddle ripple. "I just know how this world works", the President says, but I have to wonder which world he's phoning that one in from.

I have mild hopes that Bush's presentation will make a few people raise their eyebrows and question whether he can prosecute a war on terror he can't define, but immediately after I had the misfortune of watching the matron predator, Karen Hughes, launch the first round of the propaganda machine, declaring Kerry a flip-flopper again, reducing the clashes of their positions into the bumper sticker snack bite that will be dutifully cult chanted at the next campaign rally. (Flip-flop, flip-flop, flip-flop.) I guess everything we ever needed to learn about a Presidential campaign we could have learned from skipping the debates, and instead watching the right-wing apparatchiks try to jinx someone on the free throw line.

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