ANNANDALE, Va. -- The immediate consensus on the Fox right was that Bush had hammered the Tall Guy rather decisively -- this from the same hard-to-please folks who had felt Bush hadn't done too well in last Friday's rather successful townhall debate. The ABC left preferred to call last night a draw, though one could detect a lack of confidence on that score. On Nightline George Stephanopoulos conceded Bush was "much more likable and human" than Kerry -- this in reply to a question from Ted Koppel fretting at why Kerry had "failed to ignite" his campaign. Not the sort of comments one might expect from media libs confident their guy had carried the night. Even Nightline guest John Edwards came off churlish. Why else would he have claimed that last night's debate was less important than the first two if not because his guy had lost and thus his own political career was entering its lameduck phase?
Scoring these events doesn't make much sense, in any case. For one thing, Kerry was Kerry was Kerry at all three debates. It's not a pleasant sight to see a tall guy overmatched. But what else can one conclude when over and over Kerry responded by rote recitation of his talking points? This allowed Bush to escape more than once. In other circumstances, for instance, Bush would have been hammered to calling on the young and healthy to abstain from flu shots this winter, owing to shortages of the vaccine UNDER HIS WATCH. Instead what did Kerry say? "This really underscores the problem with the American health care system." You know, five million Americans lost their health insurance under President Bush. Children nationwide aren't being covered. So rather than zing Bush on a timely issue ripe for demagogy, Kerry got zinged instead.
Mr. Schieffer: "Mr. President would you like to add something?"
Mr. Bush: "I would, thank you. I want to remind people listening tonight that a plan is not a litany of complaints."
At other times Kerry just sounded like warmed-over Gore. Comedy show talent scouts must have been licking their chops. He explained his "truth standard" this way: "That's how you gain legitimacy with your own countrypeople ... " Countrypeople? As in Friends, Romans, and Countrypeople? At one point he defended religion only to end up a practicing pagan, again via the weirdest wording: "And I think that everything you do in public life has to be guided by your faith, affected by your faith, but without transferring it in any official way to other people. That's why I fight against poverty. That's why I fight to clean up the environment and protect this earth." Give the poor guy an L.L. Bean gift certificate and a Good Earth catalogue.
Most painful was his closing oration, which could have performed by Kevin Kline practicing being presidential in front of a mirror in the movie Dave. Read it very slowly, as if you were practicing too. "I ask you to allow me the privilege of leading this great nation of ours, of helping us to be stronger here at home and to be respected again in the world. And most of all, to be safer forever. Thank you, good night, and God ... bless ... the ... United ... States ... of ... America." It's the closest Kerry ever will come to delivering orotund from the Oval Office.
At times Kerry appeared to be wincing. He couldn't keep his eyes open beyond a squint. Was it because Bush was showing no mercy working him over? Certainly Bush showed him no respect. Where Kerry regularly referred to him as "the President," Bush didn't have the grace to refer to Kerry as anything other than "he" -- unless, in a more compassionate moment, he deigned to call him "my opponent."
Kerry cowered in other ways. Those bishops who don't want Catholics to vote for him? "I respect their views. I completely respect their views. I am a Catholic..." Bush waxing about his religious beliefs? "Well, I respect everything that the President has said and certainly respect his faith. I think it's important and I share it..." Last and certainly least, he was asked about his fearsome wife -- and he took a pass, in favor of some invented story about his mother on her death bed. This, mind you, right after Bush had scored huge in talking about his perfect wife. One could easily conclude Kerry must be a very lonely man.
To add insult to injury, Bush beat Kerry at his own game: he was the nuanced one. Is homosexuality a choice? "You know, Bob, I don't know, I just don't know." Illegal immigration? "I see it as a serious problem. I see it as a security issue. I see it as an economic issue, and I see it as a human rights issue." You could see him jump with joy after throwing those categories back in Bob Schieffer's face.
And although there were no questions about the environment, Bush went ahead anyway to demonstrate that he's a recycler. Amazingly, he led off his closing remarks with the story of a West Texas painting by Tom Lea. It depicts a mountain scene, which, as Lea has described, shows the east side of the mountain. "It's the sunrise side not the sunset side. It's the side to see the day that is coming not to see the day that has gone." The thing is, Bush told the same story in his acceptance speech at the Philadelphia convention four years ago. Expect to hear it a third time next Inauguration Day.
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