Who won the debate?

Camille Paglia, Arianna Huffington, Roger Ebert, Ben Stein and others weigh in on the partisan fisticuffs in Boston.


Compiled by Salon News Staff
October 4, 2000 11:19AM (UTC)

Round 1 is in the books. The much anticipated face-off between Al Gore and George W. Bush finally went down at the University of Massachusetts last night, keeping the cable news networks chattering into the night. Amid the clamor, no clear winner emerged.

Whether it was Bush's carping about "fuzzy math" or Gore's incessant deep sighing, undecided voters who went into the debate looking for answers seemed to walk away just as undecided. Even some of Salon's carnivorous partisans walked away disappointed, giving the performance a thumbs-down.

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Camille Paglia is an author and a Salon columnist.

My first reaction to last night's presidential debate was relief that, should he be elected, George W. Bush will not be as totally inarticulate and brain-cell-deficient as we have had abundant reason to fear over the past year. Bush's performance was occasionally shaky but competent, and he stressed his key issues in plain, common-sense language that probably connected with many voters outside the Northeastern media loop.

Bush was at his weakest in dealing with foreign policy, but that's to be expected from any governor (like Bill Clinton in 1992) aspiring to the presidency. Bush was embarrassingly bad, however, in fielding the question about how he would handle a severe economic downturn. He looked and sounded like a stammering schoolboy. The top candidate of the business-savvy Republican Party should have a lot more on the ball when it comes to economics.

In stagecraft terms, I would note that Bush's hair (like early Clinton's) is too flyaway, and his collars and jackets are retrograde and ill-fitting. Plus, guys with this much testosterone pumping need another shave by the end of the day. Bush's Nixonian stubble was somewhat distracting.

As for Al Gore, if I had had any doubt about whether he deserves my vote, he managed to run right over it with his out-of-control, ham-laden 18-wheeler. What a loathsome, smug, preening, juvenile character! The supposedly great debater babbled out of turn; snickered, snorted and sneered; panted and sighed like a bellows; and rocked to and fro and ripped paper like a patient in a mental ward. And Gore looked positively repellent with his dark mat of dyed hair, garish orange makeup and flippantly twisting, strangely female features: I kept on thinking of the bewigged, transvestite Norman Bates as Mother in "Psycho".

In terms of issues, Gore is vastly more prepared than Bush to hit the ground running as chief executive. Gore knows his way around international affairs, and he is certainly more conversant with the operations of the federal bureaucracy. His lifetime in Washington, D.C., is both his strongest and weakest point. Voters' suspicions about him, however, stem from their quite accurate sense that he will promise the moon and the stars to everyone just to get elected and that his constant stream of words means nothing. By the end of the debate, I felt, Gore's loosey-goosey pandering had made him seem curiously unpresidential.

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The really big news of the night was that Green Party candidate Ralph Nader (for whom, as I say in my latest column, I intend to vote) was physically stopped from entering the hall -- which sounds like something out of the old Soviet Union. C-SPAN showed a late-night report from Boston TV that interviewed a Nader supporter, a very angry and shaken Smith College student, who was hit in the head with a rock by a Gore supporter in the crowd outside. This was the second report of a physical assault by Gore supporters last night.

Something is going very wrong with the Democratic Party. Democratic activists are becoming hooligans. When Hillary Clinton was scheduled to vacation in Skaneateles, N.Y., this summer (my home region), Democrats pressured the town government to remove Rick Lazio signs from people's private lawns. The town refused. In the middle of the night before Hillary arrived, the signs were all stolen -- an act of trespassing as well as a violation of free speech.

In Philadelphia about a year and a half ago, union activists assaulted and beat up several citizens carrying anti-Clinton signs in front of a hotel where the president was scheduled to speak. At least part of the attack was filmed by TV crews. This was a blatant violation of the protesters' constitutional right to peaceful assembly. The major media, with their liberal bias, have ignored these troubling signs that the Democratic Party (of which I am a registered member) is sliding toward irrationalism and zealotry.

Robert Reich, former secretary of labor in the Clinton administration and current editor of the American Prospect

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It was a colossal bore. It was better than Sominex; there were no side effects. There was no humor, no artfulness, they got lost in budget numbers having to do with 10-year projections that are fictions at best. Gore seemed pedantic. Bush seemed scared. They repeated the same mantras over and over. I can't believe that many members of the public are going to watch debate No. 2. It was a colossal dud, a first-class dud. It didn't change anybody's mind. It may keep some people away from the voting booth on Nov. 7 because it was so utterly predictable.

On the one hand, Gore clearly had far better command over the policies than Bush. Gore was a fountain of data and analyses. But I don't have to spin anymore. He talked far too long and too much, and he sometimes sounded condescending and pedantic. Bush on the other hand sounded as if he didn't really understand the issues terribly well, was a bit intimidated by Gore and is a lightweight. Now, I think people who are policy junkies or political junkies who watched the whole thing and listened carefully agree that Gore won it hands down. But most of the public wasn't moved in one way or the other by the debate. It was a big yawn.

Gore will win this election. The basics are on his side -- the economy is good, he's a far more experienced campaigner and debater, the president knows how to handle Washington Republicans over the next six weeks of budget negotiations to make them look pathetic. Gore's staff are far more experienced in national campaigns than Bush's staff. I would be utterly amazed if Gore did not win this election.

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Arianna Huffington is a syndicated columnist and a Salon contributor.

Well, it was a great night for John McCain. By the end of that 90-minute joint press conference Bush and Gore staged in Boston, my overwhelming feeling was: This is not a choice, it's a farce. Can we go back and replay Super Tuesday? If Bush's goal was to look presidential, he needs a big-time makeover. In fact, it was painful to watch what the tension did to him -- you could all but smell the fear through the TV screen. But then maybe this was just the first step in interactive television that we've been hearing so much about. (He also needs to stop losing weight, or get some shirts with a smaller collar.)

On the other hand, it was hard to watch Gore without your mind wandering to what was in the refrigerator. Hmm, have those eggs passed the sell-by date? Of course, Gore would probably pick up on what you were thinking and launch into his five-part plan for ensuring food freshness: "I hear what you're asking, and if you'll entrust me with the presidency, here's what we'll do with your eggs ..." And was he aware of the disconcerting effect his constant sighing and groaning at his opponent's answers was having? (Also, despite the fact that he's his "own man," I suggest he take a fashion tip from the president and start wearing those jowl-concealing higher collars.)

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Despite all the training and the advice to show his "sincerity and genuineness," Gore could not break out of his innate priggishness. And if Bush was hoping to win by transcending his unbearable lightness -- well, he didn't. He was like one of those Macy's parade balloons -- if the ropes had broken, he would have floated right out of the auditorium.

Some are born great, some acquire greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. If Shakespeare had watched Tuesday night's debate, he might have added: And some can only bleat soullessly as greatness passes them by.

Roger Ebert is a Chicago Sun-Times film critic and the host of "Roger Ebert at the Movies."

Gore was clearly more presidential. One had the feeling that Gore had more resources of knowledge and experience to back up what he was saying, and that Bush was pretty thinly stretched.

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I think it wasn't wise for either of them to argue so much over numbers. I believe that the only useful thing would be to read the news analysis tomorrow about whether the numbers add up. People, when they hear a lot of numbers, just kind of zone out. I felt that Bush was probably not wise to talk about Gore's fuzzy arithmetic since Gore seemed to have a better command of the numbers. Gore sighed more than I wanted him to sigh.

I think Bush had a pretty embarrassing response when he was asked about Milosevic, calling on Russia to intervene when he clearly didn't know that Russia does not support our position. And there were times when you didn't know if Bush could go the whole two minutes. For instance, in the question of how he would handle a crisis situation -- I wasn't reassured that Bush flew off to floods and fires in Texas. Every governor flies off to floods and fires. But that's not what that question was about. Gore's response about the conflict in Kosovo I felt was more germane.

One area I wish they would have gotten into was the death penalty. I would have asked Bush whether, since his state has the highest rate of executions, does he feel the other states have a lot of catching up to do? I wish it would have been brought up, because I believe that in Texas people are being executed without adequate defense or judicial protection with alarming frequency.

People expected Bush to melt down and he didn't, but I think he came across as a lightweight compared to the vice president. Watching the two of them I just didn't feel that Bush had the resources to be president, and that was dramatized by the fact that Gore has 24 years of national experience and Bush has only been governor of a state where the governor doesn't have that much power.

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Ben Stein hosts the game show "Win Ben Stein's Money" on Comedy Central.

At the beginning Bush was quite nervous and Gore was quite confident, but by the end Gore was quite nervous and Bush was very confident.

Bush didn't handle explaining his tax plan as well as he might have, because it's really a sensible plan. He should have mentioned that six Nobel Prize-winning economists believe it's a good plan, including the most respected economist in the field, Milton Friedman. If in fact Milton Friedman approves of the plan, then there's a lot going for it.

As for what Gore said, I think it's an arithmetic impossibility that half of Bush's tax cut would go to millionaires. There are only a few thousand people who meet that threshold. And I think that Gore was trying to obfuscate and confuse people on the plan to allow taxpayers to invest some of their Social Security. Bush hit that one right out of the park when he said, "Look, taxpayers can get 4 percent if they put that money in government bonds." Actually it's 5 percent. That to me made perfect sense.

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I was a little tiny bit disappointed that [Bush] didn't speak more forcefully against RU-486. Abortion is abortion whether you do it in a doctor's office or with a pill.

Gore was comically overmade-up, I guess because he was so nervous about sweating. I work in show business every day, and I don't think that I've seen that much makeup on anyone besides a Las Vegas showgirl. I kept waiting for his false eyelashes to fall off.

Andrew Sullivan is a senior editor at the New Republic.

The best way I can think to describe the last hour and a half is assisted suicide. Gore was wooden, condescending, boring, preachy, very liberal. Bush was a human being, good-natured, reasonable, smart, sane. It was a knockout.

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Lucianne Goldberg is a literary agent and a sponsor of Lucianne.com.

Well, I'm not thrilled. I finally was reduced to thinking, "If I had to be in traction for six months, who do I want in the next bed?" Under those circumstances, Bush won. He's more interesting. If that's what people vote on, and I have a feeling they do, then Bush won. God knows we've had an interesting person for the last eight years.

I'm of the school that believes if it isn't fun, don't do it. So if it's a question of who's the most fun, in a two-man race, Bush would be more fun. But I don't think you're supposed to elect presidents that way.

Gore looked like a holograph, a really plastic man. And the whole debate was so wonk-saturated that only the die-hard junkies could sit through it. The depressing thing was when Jim Lehrer gave out the schedule at the end. I thought, "I can't do this anymore. Don't make me watch it again." But we've got to sit through this two more times! Now, the vice presidential debate may be fun. At least we'll get some schtick out of Lieberman. If the election has to ride on this, we're in a pretty dull, calm sea.

David Horowitz is an author and a Salon columnist.

If being a rude, obnoxious, repetitive and overbearing jerk; if interrupting your opponent and even your moderator; if rolling your eyes at views you can't handle and posturing for the cameras in between; if talking over your allotted time and ignoring the rules and attempting to control the stage and everything on it -- if all of that is what wins, then Gore won.

Oh, and don't forget the baldfaced lying. My favorite whopper was when Gore said that Bush's education plan would let kids languish for three years in failing schools and then give their parents a pittance (because all of the tax cut, of course, was going to the rich). One thing this shows is what a wonk Gore is, because not one person in 10,000 would know enough about the details of the Bush plan to twist them so maliciously. Bush's plan is actually a reform of Title I spending, a federal program that has been in place for 35 years. Since its inception, $120 billion has been targeted to help failing inner-city schools. The result of all of those billions squandered on the current bankrupt system is not a single point of improvement in the test scores of the disadvantaged children in those schools. The reason? The money is going into the pockets of government bureaucrats, administrators, teachers and suppliers who haven't either the incentive, or the ability, or the imagination or the interest to raise those kids' scores.

Bush's proposal? Let the government give an ultimatum to the adults who run these schools. If any school receiving Title I funds does not raise its children's scores in three years, then the parents of the children in them will get the Title I funds themselves, so they can use them to find a school that will teach their kids. The reason for the three-year wait is to see if the incentive (the threat of removing the funds) works. It's fair. And yes, it's cautious. But at least it's a reform that tries to do something for those kids. Al Gore has done nothing for those kids his entire 24-year political life.

Who won the debate? Bush had to defeat the expectations that he was a lightweight. He did. He showed intelligence and comported himself with dignity. Al Gore had to show that he was not obnoxious, hectoring and the kid you hated most in the class. He didn't. Watch the gender gap close.


Compiled by Salon News Staff

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Al Gore George W. Bush Roger Ebert




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