A comeback for Gore?

Roger Ebert, Joe Eszterhas, Andrew Sullivan and others dissect the final debate of the campaign.

By Compiled by Salon staff

Published October 18, 2000 6:10PM (EDT)

After being too strong in the first debate, and too weak in the second, Al Gore tried to strike a balance in the final debate on Tuesday. He put on quite a show for the undecided voters of the Show Me State, spending little time at his seat and bounding from one end of the stage to the other. George W. Bush seemed tired and distracted, but was better at playing by Jim Lehrer's rules.

Was there still too much pepper in Gore's punch? Or did Bush squander the gains he made in the second round? For Salon's presidential debate panel, it was a split decision.

Todd Gitlin, professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University

For anyone with an open eye and ear, Al Gore revealed himself to be an intelligent, thorough and confident figure who one could imagine -- without much difficulty -- mastering the Oval Office. And George W. Bush revealed himself to be a shambling, evasive babbler. Now it's evident that there are a substantial number of Americans, especially in the contested states, who want their president stupid. If there are enough of those people, then Bush won this debate by losing it, by demonstrating his hapless incompetence and almost daffy incapacity. If the majority of the American public is unstampeded by the argument that this empty-headed jokester is a "uniter and not a divider," then they will see that Al Gore is up to the task of governing, and W. should return to running ball teams, especially with public subsidy.

I'm aghast at the shallowness and sheer incompetence of the man. I was trying to figure out how he could have been so dopey, and I'm wondering if he got some disturbing news or a punch in the head before the debate, because he struck me as surprisingly feeble and diminished. He couldn't budge from his script, and he seemed like a drugged Stepford husband.

That this man could be close to the presidency is appalling beyond words. How any serious person could find him persuasive is beyond me. I think the mindless repetition of Republican pieties is what he has to offer. And if there are enough Republicans out there who think intoning "tax and spend, tax and spend" is the answer to the problems of the modern world, then Bush wins. And God help us all.

Stanley Crouch, critic and author of "Don't the Moon Look Lonesome"

It might be possible to have a more boring debate than was had between Al Gore and George W. Bush this time around, but I can't actually imagine it. The biggest problem is in the favor of the Democrats because the issues facing the nation do not have much dramatic appeal although, untended, they could become catastrophic in the future. How does one make expensive prescription drugs or low-performing public schools or tax cuts or Medicare or extraordinary vulgarity in popular culture sufficiently dramatic to create interest, suspense and curiosity in an audience? Well, there might be a way to do so, but neither man figured that out.

Gore seemed intent on becoming more ardent this time around but seemed phony and only too willing to ignore the rules that he and Bush had agreed upon if they got in his way. On the other hand, Bush came off well more often than not but seemed to have memorized his answers to questions about subjects such as the Middle East, which resulted in his response using almost exactly the same words heard in the second debate when the same issue came up.

That makes the exclusion of Ralph Nader and Patrick Buchanan even more unfortunate. Both would have heated matters up, attacked policies vehemently and brought to the table a whole other body of ideas and information. Nader, for one, would have accused both of selling out to the powerful, and would have brought serious environmental charges against the Clinton administration. He would have called into question policies both national and international. So, in his way, would have Buchanan. Immigration would have been an issue and its effect on American workers, as well as trading policies.

So, once more, the public has been cheated out of hearing a fiery and substantial debate. But that lack of fire is something we have become accustomed to, sometimes mistaking it for ease. But, as one great American said so many years ago, you can't fool all of the people all of the time.

Ann Coulter, columnist for George magazine

Despite the media propaganda machine trying to hypnotize the American people into believing George Bush is a nincompoop and Al Gore is a genius, the Dope keeps performing well while the Intellectual Colossus keeps frightening small children. Even the media is starting to lose its confidence, and is not so persuasive in announcing each successive debate a "draw." (What exactly would have to happen in these debates for Dan Rather to proclaim Bush the winner?)

In the first debate, Gore was insufferable -- constantly interrupting to get in just "one more" point, heaving loud sighs, hogging airtime and reminding the teacher that she forgot to assign homework. (To say nothing of launching all-new whoppers about his heroic feats, which -- given his claim to have invented the Internet and to have been the inspiration for "Love Story" -- was roughly equivalent to Bush's having gotten the name of a major country wrong.)

By the second debate, Gore had transformed himself. No longer the know-it-all brown-noser, Gore had miraculously become Norman Bates in the last scene of "Psycho." He was so tightly wound for that you could almost hear him thinking to himself, "I hope they are watching; they will see, they will see and say, 'Why, she wouldn't even hurt a fly.'"

So naturally, the entire nation was on tenterhooks to see what weirdness Gore would unleash at the final presidential debate. The answer is: Tracy Flick from the movie "Election." Gore's various personalities are like the unhappy families described by Tolstoy: He's always weird, but he's weird in different ways.

One of the Populist Pinocchio's more self-important boasts was this: "I have helped to ... pay down the debt." If this is true, we're paying our vice presidents too much. Is Gore claiming that he was writing trillion-dollar checks on his personal checking account to help pay down the debt?

But best of all, Gore prefaced his claim to have been funding the federal government for the past eight years with this explicit disclaimer: "I'm not just saying this; I'm not just talking." It's nice that he's at least trying to give us advance warning when he's not lying. Too bad he was lying. The heaving sighs are gone, but Fibber McGee will not be repressed.

Roger Ebert, film critic

Gore creamed Bush.

Gore was informed, articulate, on topic and persuasive. Bush was vague, rambling, hesitant. Bush's Johnny Carson nice-guy act wore out. Gore finally found the balance between calm and conviction.

Bush did not seem like a man whose attention was fully engaged, as when he assured the family farmer his agriculture plan was to "feed the world." Or when he said "insurance" was "a Washington term."

One self-described middle-class, unmarried woman stood up and asked how each candidate's tax plan would help her. Gore replied with specifics. Bush's answer weirdly drifted to his plans for a strong military.

Bush lacked specifics. He talked in platitudes. Gore used platitudes, too, but moved on to specifics. When Bush tried to cite facts, as in his explanation of his tax plan, he didn't inspire confidence that he understood what he was talking about. I knew what he was trying to say about tax rates for the wealthy because I'd read articles advising him on how he should address that issue. But he wasn't able to say it clearly.

Bush avoided specifics in replying to the African-American woman who asked about diversity and affirmative action; you wouldn't learn from his answer that race had anything to do with the subject. He was even less able to deal with Gore's crossfire. Bush tried to equate "affirmative action" with "quotas." Gore pointed out that quotas are illegal. Bush responded, "if affirmative action means what I just said I was for, I'm for it." It does not mean that, Gore said, asking how Bush stood on affirmative action as it has been defined by the Supreme Court. Did Bush know what the court had said? He only lamely repeated himself. Jim Lehrer reprimanded Gore for talking out of turn, which was fair enough, but didn't give Bush an opportunity to elaborate -- for which the governor must have been thankful.

Gore had command of facts and issues; he was sure of himself. With Bush, I had the feeling there was little left unsaid, that he was spinning his wheels trying to get to the two-minute mark. He reminded me of a student who had crammed for the exam, knew the names and the terms, but didn't deeply understand them -- who was substituting generalizations for answers.

Gore won the debate. More to the point, Bush did not demonstrate competence. Gore seemed presidential. Bush did not.

Andrew Sullivan, a senior editor at the New Republic, has a new Web site, www.andrewsullivan.com

Tougher one to call, this one, but I give it to Bush by a small margin. Gore did much better than before. He made one very telling point, illustrating the hole in W.'s Social Security proposals.

He also seemed like he'd had a testosterone shot or something. Man, the first time he stood up I thought he was going to clock Bush. But there was also something oddly strained about his machismo. He strutted around the stage, blocking Bush's view, trying to intimidate him physically. He came across as a bit of a bully: an Alpha Male who fears he isn't. Bush, in contrast, seemed more relaxed, more passive, more secure in his masculinity. He flubbed his chance -- again! -- to defend his tax proposals, and looked tired to me. I bet the result is that Gore upped his numbers among men but lost more among women.

Three things linger in the mind. First, Gore physically dominated, using the format to press home his height advantage. This shouldn't matter, but it does. The taller candidate almost always wins. Second, Bush related to people better. I was particularly struck by his answer to Leo Anderson, the black guy who asked about the death penalty. Like Leo, I'd also been unnerved by the callowness of Bush's death penalty answer in the previous debate. But W's eye contact this time, his somberness and appearance of depth in his answer almost wiped last week's smug smirk from my memory. It was also encouraging that he seemed completely at ease with an African-American.

Third, Gore cheated. He walked around to gain advantage, he ran over his time, he violated the rules which bar the candidates from asking direct questions of each other and he often used the questions as a platform to go off on another spiel. This was really irritating. I bet a lot of viewers objected to these tactics. They seemed calculated and arch, and played into deeper worries about his character.

Strategically, Gore succeeded in proving he'll spend more money on more people, which -- in this pander-thon -- may well count for something. He disinterred the Shrummery of the convention and rallied his base. Similarly, Bush played the not-from-Washington card well, and adequately tagged Gore as a big spender. Gore seemed to attack more; Bush seemed to conciliate more.

Both did well in their markedly different ways, which means Bush won, since he's already ahead. He even made me smile at times, whereas Gore occasionally made me wince. I realized as the debate proceeded that I can hardly bear the thought of Gore patrolling the culture for four more years. I don't particularly like Bush, but I really can't stand Gore. I have a feeling I'm not alone.

Virginia Postrel, editor-at-large of Reason magazine and the author of "The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress"

The most memorable moment of the debate was one that didn't happen. A woman asked Al Gore how his tax cut proposal would affect her as a middle-class, 34-year-old single woman with no dependents. The vice president responded with a litany of if-then statements: IF you put money in a savings account, IF you go to school, IF you have an elderly parent or grandparent you're taking care of, THEN have I got a deal for you. Most middle-class, 34-year-old single women with no dependents just don't meet most of Gore's criteria for good behavior. They get nothing from his tax cut.

It was a perfect setup for George W. Bush's successful ideological theme: that he trusts people to make decisions about their own lives, and believes government shouldn't play favorites, while Gore wants to use the tax code and other programs for behavior modification. "If, if, if," he could have said, "if and only if you do just what the vice president thinks you should do, then you'll get some of your hard-earned money back. Under my plan, you will get tax relief, with no strings attached. I believe everyone who pays taxes should get some of the government's overcharge back. It's your money. And if you need to spend it on a new car, or to fix up your apartment, or to go shopping for a new wardrobe, that's your business, not the government's. You know better than I do what's best for you. I respect your right and responsibility to run your own life, and so do my policies."

But Bush blew it. As the vice president's campaign might say, he babbled -- talking first about how Gore's savings subsidies would bust the budget, then for some bizarre reason bringing up Medicare and promising that we'll live in a peaceful world with more educated citizens if he gets elected. Sandwiched in between these random promises was what should have been the lead -- "You are going to get tax relief under my plan" -- with no follow-up explanation. Bush missed his moment, and the public discussion is the poorer for it.

Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum

I was very pleased with the way Bush presented himself. He was relaxed and informed, and made a very good impression. And the differences between the candidates were made clear. Bush wants to give everyone a tax cut, while Gore is for bigger government. Bush doesn't want to commit American troops unless we have a national interest at stake, and that's quite a change from the Clinton-Gore policy.

I was really turned off by the person who asked what the government should do about people who won't take an interest in their children's education. I don't think that's the government's job. That just proves that there are people out there who want the government to be a big nanny for everybody.

Joe Eszterhas, author of "American Rhapsody"

Bob Dylan lives across from me. BFD. But within the context of tonight's debate ... and I truly hate to say this ... to Al Gore: It's all over now, baby blue ... and to George W. Bush: All along the watchtower ... and to America: The times they are a-changin'.

Christopher Buckley, editor of Forbes FYI magazine

Though no one in the studio audience asked it, maybe the operative question last night should have been, "Which one of you two guys would I like to be stuck on a long bus ride with?"

For me that would settle it very quickly. Jim Lehrer.

My second choice for the Chicago-to-L.A. Greyhound run would be George W. Bush, because I get the sense that before we got hit Iowa, he'd turn to me and say, "You know, I'm just makin' this up as I go along. But I think I got pretty decent instincts, and I think I could be OK as president. " If Gore were sitting next to me on that trip, I'd have switched my seat before we even pulled out of the station; or swallowed the whole bottle of Advil, which I'm told will do the existential trick.

All politicians "embellish" to use the current term for "lie." Bush may be "fuzzy" -- to use his term -- on some points. Gore gives the impression of being oblivious to the distinction. He operates on the plane of meta-veracity. Watching him tonight, I wondered if he really even realized if he was telling intelligence-insulting untruths. He said, "I am a person who keeps promises." Fine, but where does that leave, "There was no controlling legal authority." (His justification for shaking down Buddhist monks for campaign donations.) In this light, his chest-thumping endorsement of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill was hollandaise sauce. My inner child cried, "Hel-lo?" He gives the impression of a man who has spun so many times that his needle no longer has the faintest idea where to find True -- or even magnetic -- north.

Bush at least gives the impression of a man keenly aware, perhaps even keenly aware, of his shortcomings. He has the gift of self-deprecation and humor, which can help get a president -- to say nothing of the country -- through uncertain times. (Compare Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.)

In his closing statement Bush said, "To those who support my opponent, please only vote once." That's a warm-blooded guy. In his closing statement, Al Gore reminded us, really one too many times, that he had gone to Vietnam. To this he added that he had been faithful to his wife. Leaving aside what those two statements say about the president he has spent the last eight years serving under, whom he so memorably described as "One of our greatest presidents" -- there are those who may be a teensy bit uncomfortable at such self-promoting manifestations of virtue. That he followed these declarations by shameless -- and unattributed -- plagiarism of Ronald Reagan's 1984 signature campaign line, "You ain't seen nothin' yet" declares his imaginative Chapter 11 bankruptcy. What undecided voters remain may take this the final evidence that, as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, California, "There's no there there."

Compiled by Salon staff

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