After months of flawless execution in a well-orchestrated campaign, President Bush had to stand alone in an unpredictable debate. He had traveled the country, appearing before adoring preselected crowds; delivered a carefully crafted acceptance speech at his convention; and approved tens of millions of dollars in TV attack commercials to belittle his opponent. His much-touted charisma was a reflection of the anxiety and wishful thinking of the people since Sept. 11. In the lead, Bush believed he had only to assert his superiority to end the contest once and for all.
But onstage the incumbent president ran out of programmed talking points. Unable to explain the logic for his policies, or think on his feet, he was thrown back on the raw elements of his personality and leadership, and he revealed even more profound issues than the policies being debated.
Every time he was confronted with ambivalence, his impulse was to sweep it aside. He claimed he must be followed because he is the leader. Fate in the form of Sept. 11 had placed authority in his hands as a man of destiny.
Skepticism, pragmatism and empiricism are his enemies. Absolute faith prevails over open-ended reason, subjectivity over fact. Those who do not pray at his altar of certainty are betrayers of the faith, not to mention the troops. Belief in belief is the ultimate sacrament of his political legitimacy.
In the frame of the split TV screen, Bush's face was a transparent mirror of his emotions. His grimaces exposed his irritation, frustration and anger at being challenged. Lacking intellectual stamina and repeating his talking points as though on a feedback loop, he tried to close argument by blind assertion. With no one interrupting him, he protested, "Let me finish" -- a phrase he occasionally deploys to great effect before the cowed White House press corps.
John Kerry was set up beforehand as Bush's ideal foil: long-winded, dour and dull. But the Kerry who showed up was crisp, nimble and formidable. His thrusts brought out Bush's rigidity and stubbornness. The more Bush pleaded the case of his own decisiveness, the more he appeared reactive. Time and again, as he attempted to halt Kerry, he accused him of "mixed signals" and "mixed messages" and "inconsistency." For Bush, certainty equals strength. His facial expressions exposed his exasperation at having to hear an opposing view. As he accused Kerry of being contradictory, it was obvious that he was peeved at being contradicted.
Kerry responded with a devastating deconstruction of Bush's epistemology. Nothing like this critique of pure reason has ever been heard in a presidential debate. "It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong," said Kerry. "It's another to be certain and be right, or to be certain and be moving in the right direction, or be certain about a principle and then learn new facts and take those new facts and put them to use in order to change and get your policy right. What I worry about with the president is that he's not acknowledging what's on the ground, he's not acknowledging the realities of North Korea, he's not acknowledging the truth of the science of stem cell research or of global warming and other issues. And certainty sometimes can get you in trouble."
Kerry's analysis of Bush's "colossal error of judgment" in Iraq was systematic, factual and historical. The coup de grâce was his citation of the president's father's actions in the Gulf War. "You know," said Kerry, "the president's father did not go into Iraq, into Baghdad, beyond Basra. And the reason he didn't is, he said -- he wrote in his book -- because there was no viable exit strategy. And he said our troops would be occupiers in a bitterly hostile land. That's exactly where we find ourselves today." With that, Kerry touched on Bush's most ambivalent relationship, the father he recently called "the wrong father," whom he compared with the "higher Father."
In response, Bush simply insisted on his authority. "I just know how this world works, and that in the councils of government, there must be certainty from the U.S. president." He reverted to his claim that Sept. 11 justified the invasion of Iraq because "the enemy" -- meaning Saddam Hussein -- "attacked us." A stunned but swift-footed Kerry observed: "The president just said something extraordinarily revealing and frankly very important in this debate. In answer to your question about Iraq and sending people into Iraq, he just said, 'The enemy attacked us.' Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us." In his effort to banish all doubt, Bush had retreated into a substitute reality, a delusional version of Iraq, ultimately faith based.
Bush's attack lines against Kerry were not descriptive of the surprising man standing opposite him. They had been effective last week, but were suddenly shopworn. But Bush couldn't adjust amid the rapidly moving event. The greater his frustration in the debate, the more frequently he spoke of his difficulties in coping with "my job." "In Iraq, no doubt about it, it's tough. It's hard work," he said. Ten times he spoke of his "hard work": listening to intelligence briefings, training Iraqi troops, talking to allies, having to comfort a bereaved mother whose son was killed in Iraq.
Finally, near the end, Kerry praised Bush for his public service, and his wife, and his daughters. "I'm trying to put a leash on them," Bush said. That was hard work, too. "Well, I don't know," replied Kerry, who also has daughters. "I've learned not to do that, Mr. President." Even in the banter about parental control, Kerry gained the upper hand.
But Bush lost more than control in the first debate. He lost the plot.