The Gremlin Assist: On the Last of the 2004 US Presidential Debates

Terry Sawyer

The Presidential debates are no supposed to be like the Special Olympics; everyone is not a winner for simply trying.

As my Dad might say, Kerry can't win for losing. Despite a blowout performance in the debate, a veritable baby candy theft, Senator John Kerry received only a minor bump for his easy victories. Part of that negligible boost is surely due in part to the punditry's belittling slights, their repeated dismissals of the debates as pure pageantry. Sure, Kerry's performance was impressive, but it's all smoke, mirrors, and trapdoors. President George Bush can't compete because of all of his Connecticut cowboy realness, his plug ugly lack of artifice. Pundits spin the debate as if they are just a courtly ritual leftover from the monarchy days, a swishy tradition that has limited value because rhetoric is serpentine, a dark art of carnies and lawyers. If Bush has done one thing for our country, it is to make sure that our collective infantalization continues apace.

It's true that unless Bush held aloft a Dixie cup and exhorted the faithful to drink unto death for the Apocalypse is nigh, it's unlikely that his faith-based followers will do anything other than continue believing that it's only under unfair pressure (e.g., questioning) that their cookie crumbles. In their fantasy, the President really shines when we aren't looking, like the Warner Brother's frog who'd only sing "Mammy, how I love you, how I love you my dear old swammy" when no one else was around. These voters are content to catch glimpses of what they call "character", even though whatever snatches of substance they garner come from densely mediated and scripted performances. Like all fantasies, it's a talisman against the obvious. No matter, theses are people with "values" who vote with their gut. We are living out irrationality's vengeance, an era when all the fundamentalisms of the world rise up and make their prophecies real, using science, power, and violence to realize their wet dreams of global dominance.

True, this last debate was the President's best performance so far, and once he even made me laugh, a disorienting experience. But this is not supposed to be the Special Olympics, everyone is not a winner for simply trying, and we shouldn't have to view a contest for the leader of our country through with a limbo rock achievement bar. But part of the President's leg up this time around certainly came in the form of CBS news anchor Bob Schieffer, who, on just about every question lobbed toward the President, used a slow motion pitch, in tones usually reserved for children, puppies, and most especially children's puppies. His presence was invasive and desiccated, the talking dough hobgoblin with coal flecks for eyes, who tried, on several occasions, to hoist the President onto the grocery store pony and even lent him the quarter for the ride.

In one of the introductory questions, Schieffer peels the rind of complexity off for the President by saying "You know, there are all kind of statistics out there, but I want to bring it (the economy) down to an individual". Is this the Presidential debate or did I just ring dial-a-story? Schieffer preemptively dismissed Kerry's argumentative strength in favor of a frame where George "consummate bullshitter" Bush could excel. After all, all those "kind of statistics" that do exist don't point to a stellar economic record for the administration, which constantly tries to get the poor to ignore their material interests with phantom threats of gay people doing the hokey pokey and feeding each other wedding cake. It's also sadly indicative of the way that conservatives have been ironically the most successful practitioners of deconstruction in the public square. Schieffer's subtext is that we can't access the truth about the economy, there is no objectivity on this issue, so let's instead see who can be the more effective demagogue. This dovetails nicely with the Bush Administration's overall faith-based assault on Enlightenment notions of truth: such as finding a few industry whore scientists to deny the existence of global warming and then saying that such obviously compromised views prove that there is no "consensus". Jacques Derrida, rest his soul, would be proud.

Schieffer's piggyback for the President was seldom subtle. Almost every question to Kerry was worded in an implicitly combative matter, loaded with weighted assumptions that made it clear that Schieffer prefigured Kerry's positions as phony and pandering, e.g., "So I ask you, is it fair to blame the Administration entirely for this loss of jobs?" Schieffer outlined that he, in fact, thought that people were just losing their jobs to advances in technology. Ah, yes the cotton gin, how could Kerry forget? An odd deception, when in fact many jobs are being lost to countries mired in underdevelopment, where the need for money is so great that people are willing to surrender entirely to the will of the corporation. So how does Kerry successfully beat back against the undercurrents of the question, since we've already established that statistics are evil mirages? Kerry is screwed in this setting because he can't grouse about the question's wording without sounding petty, so in some ways he must cede ground to its skewed assumptions.

At times, Schieffer seemed to be molding his questions directly from Republican talking points. When asking about the cost of his health care program, Schieffer seemed asked Kerry in an openly perplexed manner, "You heard the President say earlier tonight that it's going to cost a whole lot more money than that. I'd just ask you, where are you going to get the money?" Since when is the President some great anchor of truth? Kerry should have countered with a real great personal yarn about paying for health care, you know a story about him and one of his drinking buddies. Oh, that's right, only Democrats get burdened with having policies. Republicans can just make us want to have beers with them. Schieffer begins from a position that Kerry is lying and that the great crime at the core of this exchange is not that people in the world's richest country go without health care, but that we might have to raise taxes in order to give it to them.

Bush is given the best of all possible worlds in this positioning, because he's not forced to explain why he doesn't even bother worrying about paying for his programs which he has thus far funded the way Wimpy runs on credit for hamburgers that he'll gladly pay you for on Tuesday. Kerry has to account to the dime for his ideas while Schieffer tacitly assumes Bush's profligacy is the product of a war he invented the need for, a recession that Clinton caused and maybe some of those technological inventions that have recently occurred, like the Ipod.

At some point, I just began to see the debate as one between Schieffer and Kerry, with the President interrupting to show off what he'd memorized, glowing with his usual self-satisfaction, knowing full well that Karl Rove would be giving him extra treats for the night's performance. Schieffer's worst intervention was after Kerry's answer about the dangers of privatizing social security. He jumped in with, "Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, says there's no way that Social Security can pay retires what we have promised them unless we recalibrate. What he's suggesting, we're going to cut benefits or we're going to have to raise the retirement age. We may have to take some other reform. But if you've just said, you've promised no changes, does that mean you're just going to leave this as a problem for our children to solve?"

You mean like Bush's deficits are being left to future generations? How is this the job of a moderator, to interject characterizations, negative ones at that, of what the candidates have just said? Kerry had said nothing that a reasonable person could misconstrue as "I believe the children are our future and we're gonna fuck 'em good." But Schieffer simply chimed into to reinforce the President's campaign distortions of Kerry as someone who taxes and spends into thin air.

The rest of the evening's back and forth ran from the predictable to the banal, with the candidate's hamming it up about their women folk being better than themselves, in that passively sexist way that, for me, simply begs the question: "Why aren't they running then?" But one question struck me so clearly as the best example of why the President fails even the rigged terms that conservative's have set up for evaluating a leader. Schieffer, in a rare moment of cornering our special needs leader said, ". . . he (Kerry) said that you had never said whether you would like to overturn Roe v. Wade. So I'd ask you directly, would you like to?" What easier question could you hand someone driven solely by their moral convictions, someone who says he isn't swayed by opinion polls or popularity, he is only swayed by the force of his sky father. I mean, if abortion is murder, if you support the so-called "culture of life", then this question should clearly be a no brainer, the President's strong suit. Instead, the President ducked, dodged, and weaved by replying: "What he's asking me is, will I have a litmus test for my judges? And the answer is, no. I will not have a litmus test. I will pick judges who will interpret the Constitution, but I'll have no litmus test."

What a relief, because you know there are a lot of nominees who say that they prefer to interpret copies of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus rather than the Constitution. We've successfully weeded them out, now. So that's the Republicans' moral rock of Gibralter? A man who suppresses his religious viewpoint when he suspects that it might shave off a few swing voters? This is why I scoff at the religious right: because they appear to see no moral quandary in shanking the truth for political expediency. Instead, the President mutters code to his fitful base of theocrats that use their cereal box ciphers to read "interpret the Constitution" as "abortion is not a right explicitly written into the text and therefore the President would select judges inclined to overturn it".

Whereas, Kerry, that weather vaning flip flopper, came right out and said that he supports Roe v. Wade and would only select judges who did also. But the media has their script already written, and it simply doesn't fit to point out that Mr. Right and Wrong/Good and Evil is not averse to softening his morality in a willfully deceptive manner in order to pretend that his positions are more moderate than they are. I must have missed that whole lying about what you believe part in The Bible. It's probably buried in Leviticus next to the rules for stoning mouthy children.

I lament that these debates haven't been more crucial in shaping people's minds, that the press are willing participants in reducing the Presidential race to issues of "likeability". I'm going to put a bullet hole in my television the next time some ingratiating pundit fancies himself astute by framing the leadership in our country as a matter of "who do you want to invite to your BBQ?" You know who I wouldn't invite? George Bush. Because I've never been able to stand people who find the slightest disagreement as an affront to their boundless ego, people who think the poverty of their experience has led them to the riches of a God's eye view of the world, people of privilege whose only life hardship has been a near death experience with snack food in front of a football game. I think that being dumb in a world full of easy access to information is a moral crime. I think being a President who refuses to read newspapers, and who kicks people out of your campaign rallies for merely wearing a t-shirt that expresses a difference of opinion, is a sign of unforgivable ethical cowardice. In fact, as I watched the debates and listen to the rhetoric of the Republican party, I am reminded of my favorite line from The Human Stain, when one of the character's bemoans the state of our culture by saying, "People are getting dumber but more opinionated." I can think of no greater slogan for the ascendancy of conservatism and their monkey king.

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