Before last night's debate, we wrote a post suggesting (we were only half-serious at the time, we will admit) that with all of the tight rules and regs surrounding the forum, the networks' decision to ditch the debate commission rules and show renegade "cutaway shots" of whichever candidate wasn't speaking could actually make the whole thing more interesting ... well, it did. George W. Bush seemed to learn nothing from the treatment Al Gore got four years ago when he sighed and fidgeted during his opponent's answers. Now, Bush is the one getting gored for smirking, blinking, and appearing agitated while Kerry spoke.
Last night after the debate, the pundits almost instantly set in on Bush's apparent "smirking," as Wolf Blitzer said. As ABC's The Note pointed out this morning, three Florida (swing state!) newspapers noted Bush's facial expressions in their lead debate coverage, with the Jacksonville paper saying "Bush appeared to grimace or sigh sometimes at Kerry's rips on his record." And Knight-Ridder's Ron Hutcheson wrote that Bush "frowned, pursed his lips and bit the inside of his cheek as Kerry attacked the president's performance in office again and again." The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley wrote: "The cameras demonstrated that Mr. Bush cannot hear criticism without frowning, blinking and squirming (he even sighed once). They showed that Mr. Kerry can control his anger and stay cool but that he cannot suppress his inner overeager A student, flashing a bleach-white smile and nodding hungrily at each question."
And Democrats have spliced all of Bush's shifting and smirking into a video montage called "Faces of Frustration."
Reaction to Bush's clear discomfort last night is certainly not at fever pitch, not the overarching media storyline Gore's sighing was in 2000 (although Saturday Night Live hasn't had its way with Bush's smirks yet) but it's got to be enough to bug the bejeezus out of Bush's staff who took pains to prevent this very thing from happening -- to prevent us from seeing Bush when he thinks the cameras aren't on.