Saturday, October 9

Notes on the "Townhall" Debate

Impressions from Kerry's second debate with the Ruffian in Chief:
  • When President Bush stubbornly interrupted the moderator, Charles Gibson, who was trying to pose Bush a follow-up question, and then failed to return to the moderator's squelched question (as any polite debate participant would do), it was the perfect metaphor-in-action for Bush's shortcomings in international diplomacy. Just as — to cite one example — Bush rushed to war on hyped-up threats and faulty and forged intelligence, he offended the sense of fairness of any dispassionate witness to the debate by overriding the master of ceremonies and treating his assistance as resistance. As Kerry joked on the day after the debate, "I thought he was going to attack Charles Gibson." It was the same type of disdain for shared conventions that he heaps upon the International Criminal Court. In Bush’s belligerence we find a remarkable presumption: Bush believes that in being irascibly unilateralist, he attains a higher moral ground than can be hoped for by others’ negotiated agreements. That is, Bush feels that his personal arbitrariness is always less arbitrary than others' deliberately worked out agreements over shared principles of action and rules of discursive engagement. It is hard to figure how this makes any sense. To those who always judge Bush through a lens of plummeted expectations, I might concede that I am making too much of this case, since, possibly, Bush was simply frightened at the prospect of a brain overload: Bush might have feared that if the moderator were to offer new information it could boggle his mind and make it impossible for him to strike what he felt at the moment would be a decisive blow. But this concession, if granted, would only reinforce the telling metaphorical value of a very ugly incident.

  • Everyone can agree, I think, that, beyond memorizing his advisor Karl Rove's talking points (many of which are simply baseless assaults on the "opponent"), Bush does not do his homework. All of his attempts to persuade by citing authority are reduced to an "I know this or that foreign leader," or an "I looked so and so in the eye," etc. This reflects well Bush's disdain for the press, for journalism, and — yes — for the world's affairs as recounted by anyone who has not formally signed on to, or legitimated in some way, his entrenched political circle. Kerry, however, made ample use of press accounts of the state of the nation, of the events in Iraq, etc., and frequently cited Republican law-makers. Now, each man made claims that could be called misleading — again proves useful in locating some of these — but when Bush tried to win a laugh and make Kerry look small and mistaken by expressing astonishment at the suggestion that he, Bush, owned a timber company, and it turns out that, in fact, he does, well, I don't know if there could be a more dramatic way of illustrating Kerry's superior grasp of facts. Kerry knows Bush's tax records and business holdings better than Bush does.

  • It was a curious thing when Bush stopped in mid-sentence, pivoted on his foot, and turned his head to the moderator to request whether he still had time to speak. Did the President forget that both Parties, via their corporate front, the CPD, had had a light system installed to indicate whether or not, and if so, how much time remained for each man's comments? (Once the moderate said, "Yes," Bush, now pressed to proceed, pivoted back in the other direction while shrugging his shoulders and snorting over a grin; but when he resumed talking, it was clear, from his few hollow and disjointed phrases, that he was running on empty.) My question at this point was: why did the President not simply look at the lights? Was his asking a needless question and wriggling out of the moment with a calculated "affability" just his way of stalling? Or could his paranoia for media have become so exacerbated by the damaging reality checks published at home and abroad that he was suspicious and untrusting even of the lighting system? If so, this could be a troubling sign of things to come, both for the nation and the President's mental health. The threat of "liberal bias" may be looming larger by the day in the President's beleaguered mind.

  • The "excuse president": Kerry has used this expression to describe President Bush. Some might think this a bit harsh. But consider this: when challenged on whether he had planned the invasion of Iraq sensibly, by providing a sufficient number of troops, Bush, instead of citing military precedent or discussing specific strategies and arguing for their soundness, said what he always does to cover over his incurable incuriosity. He said that he "looked his generals in the eyes" and that they told him in so many words that everything would be OK. I don't know how much information the President believes he can receive and submit to judgment by means of a gaze, but it seems to me that this is just a cheap, emotional way of excusing himself for laziness and a lack of leadership. (As a side note, I find it ironic that the only time Jesus Christ mentions war is in a passage — Luke 14:31 — where he questions the wisdom of going into battle with an insufficient number of troops. So much, then, for the image of Bush, the righteous warrior, inspired by visions of divine counsel. It appears that the lesson of this verse was missing from his generals' eyes. Here is the verse: "Or what king, going to war with another king, will not first take thought if he will be strong enough, with ten thousand men, to keep off him who comes against him with twenty thousand?" Why, in his greatest hour of decision, did the President not heed his "favorite philosopher"?)

  • I am not too sure what people mean by "appearing presidential." Personally, I think that, for instance, an obese female with dark skin should not be excluded from the possibility of "appearing presidential." But I will say that, of all the things that contrast Bush and Kerry, dignity is Kerry's alone. Consider, simply, the question of posture. When Bush enters a room, he seems to be vigorously repeating to himself, "Walk resolutely, appear erect and determined, look presidential." This would be fine, and perhaps I would even believe that it were in some sense "Texan" — that's the President's explanation for his swagger — if it weren't for the fact that, once other things crowd into the President's frontal lobe — things such as debate topics — his "presidential" posture evaporates and, in its place, one finds a flatulent, impish, slumped over, rude little man. Kerry's posture, however, never seems the product of determined efforts. This is seen in his gait, his manner of standing while he speaks and of listening while he sits: there is an unforced stability and uniformity to his body language that, coupled with his never making snotty remarks or reckless gestures, suggests dignity. If Americans think dignity is or should be a presidential quality, then I suppose that Kerry is more presidential. One thing is sure: there is no dignity to a huff-and-puff, watch-me-look-presidential President.

  • I felt that this second meeting between President Bush and Senator Kerry would have ended with a sense of justice and fairness had Bush taken a flight back to Crawford and Kerry gone to work in the White House without further delay. Democracy certainly is slow.