Gargoyle Eats Choir Boy: The 2004 US Vice-Presidential Debate

Terry Sawyer

Cheney may have won if the discussion is dispassionately viewed as a series of chess moves, but the fact remains that he frightens the horses and bores most folks with the scowling, ancient grind of his voice.

Dick Cheney

John Edwards

It pains me to say that John Edwards bobbled his first and only skirmish with Vice-President Monty Burns. It also embarrasses me to admit that I quite like Dick Cheney, in the grudging way one admires someone diametrically opposed to every value you hold dear. Perhaps it's just that President Bush sets the bar so low that when any conservative tinker toys a subject and a verb together, they sound like a frigging genius.

Sorry, Johnny boy, the whole Dick Clark preacher's son look doesn't do it for me. No amount of squeegeed teeth could erase the flustered box doll performance Edwards gave in the Vice-Presidential debate. Edwards's gesticulations reek of teacherly condescension. He needs to let go of the imaginary reins he holds during every argument, especially since his output is closer to a Shetland than a Clydesdale. His aides could assist him by asking him to wear sunglasses and hold a beach ball in his hands while forcing him to look in the mirror while he spastically gestures. Then, he might see himself the way I did, like some dancing beer can near the gas station counter that twitches whenever you clap.

I understand where he gets it. While on television he looked like a hand jiving Mr. Rogers, but I'm sure that within the more intimate setting of a courtroom, his incessant physical emphases probably keeps jurors awake, following the playful bounce of his fingertips. He may as well pull out his car keys and use them like maracas. Edwards made several mistakes in transferring his trial lawyer skills to the debate, mistakes that someone less deaf to rhythm would not have made. Cheney spoke in clipped, quick sentences, dispensing "facts" with the drop and run efficiency of a cloaca. Edwards should have countered the most damaging claims but kept the momentum going by not allowing Cheney to frame the debate and not ceding the general ground in the rush to answer every nicking claim with a counter claim.

Edwards obviously did not have it together in spouting the kind of authoritatively sounding statistics and numbers cited by Cheney, so he shouldn't have half-assed it. Alas, he ended up picking out the lice in Cheney's arguments, clumsily stitching together quibbling minutiae with sobby anecdotes and random leaks of practiced earnestness. He was starved for the opportunity of cross-examination and, denied that process in this forum, he interrupted Cheney, he whined about Cheney not answering questions, and then he backtracked against the current of the discussion, picking up lost threads and in the process, leaving his overall presentation in tatters.

When Gwen Ifil asked Edwards, "What qualifies you to be a heartbeat away?", his voice cracked like Shaggy gulping in fear and clutching Scooby Doo. Jesus, Opie, maybe you should stop making magic eyebrows at female swing voters and work on making the actual case for Kerry rather than trying to win with a buttery twang and an "aw, shucks, ma'am" grin. In a moment of sheer brilliance, Cheney short-circuited Edwards' folksiness by noting "I don't talk about myself very much" before launching into a story about his modest upbringing and being hospitalized without insurance back when he was an electrician. The humanizing moment of candor was Cheney's only splash of color, and it was slightly discomfiting, like watching Darth Vader break dance. Of course, this makes it all the more heartless that he doesn't give a shit about outsourcing jobs or fucking the poor and uninsured now, but still it was a preemptive strike that made Edwards' canned pappy mill worker story at the end sound unbearably rehearsed, slick, and phony. I fully admit that I might be out on a limb here, but Edwards does not warm my heart; he makes me feel pawed at and, in this debate, he looked like a puppy carted away in a tornado gust.

Cheney also won my admiration for not entirely caving to the hate machine of his party when talking about his gay daughter. He said, "Gwen, you're right, four years ago in this debate, the subject came up. And I said then and I believe today that freedom does mean freedom for everybody. People ought to be free to choose any arrangement they want. It's really no one else's business." Coming out of a political movement whose primary base of supporters not only believes that gay people should not marry, but that they should be imprisoned, fired from their jobs, and verbally degraded at every opportunity, it took moral courage to piss in their faces like that and still expect them to drive you home.

Polls indicate that most undecided voters apparently felt differently about the VP debate than I did, and I think I can pinpoint several reasons why Cheney didn't score more decisively ("Polls Declare Different Victors in VP Debates", CNN.com, 6 October 2004) Cheney may have won if the discussion is viewed dispassionately, and viewed as a series of chess moves, but the fact remains that he frightens the horses and bores most folks with the scowling, ancient grind of his voice. Cheney lies like most people blink to moisten their eyeballs. He emanates the sulphur-smelling aura of one of Satan's bureaucrats, like he's the wily vizier who stays up all night creating the convoluted clauses that make up the actual contracts for people's souls. He entombs every room he's in, talking in downcast monotone to the constipated clasp of his hands. Cheney sucks energy like a crumpling star, draining viewers with the leeching rays of his constant, low-grade hostility. He looks like someone had to crowbar his stiff frame into the chair, ambered in disdain and curdled milk. Cheney does not savor the task of taking the administration's message to the people and even his most astute zingers dry up on his tongue and ash off like a spent cigar. For these reasons and many more, people simply don't rally around the deadwood

He's also a bit of a bitch. Now as a bitch myself, I find this quality charming, so much so that I found myself tittering at his slipped in barbs, but that's only because Cheney appeals directly to my limbic dark side, the part of me that guiltily enjoys diabolical laughter and villains who stroke Persian cats whilst demanding their minions to release the hounds. But to many, his attacks on Edwards "not very distinguished" Senate record,] sapped his comparative gravitas, making him look like a petty, shrinking goblin. His claim to never have met Edwards before that night of the debate (unsurprisingly, a lie) was a bossy dressing down, a dry managerial evaluation that wouldn't even make for good viewing on The Apprenctice. Considering he doesn't mind telling well-wishing colleagues from the other side to go fuck themselves (CNN, "Sources: Cheney Curses Senator Over Halliburton Criticism", 25 June 2004), is it any wonder that people don't make their way into his handshake as he sulkingly skulks the halls of Congress?

Cheney also allowed some of the evening's most damaging claims to slip through his thick verbal armor and draw blood. The most damning impression that hangs over him is the belief that he's a crack whore on a dirty mattress when it comes to corporate special interests, doling out backroom favors and bilking American taxpayers to grease the bottomless palms of his cronies. Edwards deftly reminded voters of Cheney's shadowy ties to Halliburton and the company's less than ethical record with Cheney as CEO. Cheney barely registered the charge, directly people to a website www.factcheck.com, when he actually meant www.factcheck.org, though either way the site does not wholly exonerate him in the way that he implied. It only purports to show how that's he's not currently collecting bounty from the no-bid contracts palmed off to his ex-associates.

Cheney wrung out lukewarm defenses of the Administration's economic policies, seemingly conceding that the Bush Administration dotes on the obscenely wealthy while being the only administration in 70 years to have created a net loss of jobs. Edwards should have hammered more on these non-answers and Cheney's passive acceptance of the grim economic realities of Bush's profligate deficit spending, but it was enough to hear Cheney briskly gloss over issues that Americans can't afford to be so glib about.

Edwards scored on the Al Qaeda connection to Saddam Hussein —or rather, the lack of it — pointing out the Vice President's breathtaking detachment from reality in his obsessive repetition of charges that run counter to every bit of evidence available. Cheney seemed sour in his surreal insistence that Saddam Hussein was integral to the war on terror. His refusal to grant the well-documented lack of connection between Hussein and Bin Laden made him smolder with stubborn arrogance. Edwards managed, if not too nimbly, to highlight this steadfast deception, while Cheney clung to his flat-earth ravings. Edwards pushed the failures further by pointing out that the administration's flights of ideological fantasy have rended the decisiveness of the war on terror, botched the capture of Osama Bin Laden and diverted resources to the unnecessary war on Iraq. Cheney, like the President, seems unable to outline the contours of this war, conflating it with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and making Afghanistan sound like a foreign policy glamour shot. He grumpily ignored Edwards more accurate description of Afghanistan as a country rebounding into a warlord controlled heroin factory. Cheney lost more ground than he gained, hobbling along on the "flip-flopper" crutch of John Kerry's alleged inconsistency as the weak readymade defense for his administration's consistent mistakenness.

That said, basically, Cheney won this debate, but only at the most insubstantive PR level of a television appearance. Edwards reprised the faulty Bush strategy of memorizing too many pat answers and failing to deliver them with spontaneity or sincerity. Edwards never surrendered to the flow of the actual argument, giving Cheney the opportunity to bat him around like a jaguar with a clot of yarn. But there's still no coherence to Cheney's outlines of the war on terror and he basically granted that his Administration's only domestic agenda is stuffing more cash in the g-strings of the rich and underfunding their own initiatives. But I'm a liberal hard ass and I sincerely believe George Bush is the most frightening fundamentalist nutjob President we've ever had. Whatever Cheney may have won on circumstance he loses soundly in the wider, basic truths perverted and thrashed by his reckless administration.

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