Has the dust settled on last night's showdown? What dust! The commentariat, such as I could sample, all expressed surprise at how "civil" the debate turned out to be. Evidently they were still in recovery from Al Gore's heavy breathing and bullying four years back. It's a credit to President Bush's likable persona that he could sigh and display annoyance all he wants and no one seemed alarmed.
A guest on "Nightline" was the first I heard to make the predictable point that if some alien saw last night's two participants in action for the first time Kerry would have been the one who appeared more presidential. Well, duh. He's taller, smoother sounding, and prepared to say anything. Plus he even smiled a few times and appeared gracious. All that private schooling had to leave some mark.
Bush, by contrast, was caught in an act his detractors always claim he's incapable of: thinking. More than once he bit his tongue, concentrated on what he wanted to say, and then offered it up. So there we are, a pensive Bush. Some thought him tired, which made sense. He is a war president, fully committed. What's more, the event ran well past his and many other people's bedtime. Ninety minutes was far too long a format, in any case. I kept looking at my watch. Fortunately, the president did not, despite the tediousness of the event which had both men repeating their points over the over.
For clarity's sake, there was a certain benefit to allowing both figures have their say. We now know for certain that Kerry loves the U.N. above all else, that he has big plans on how to win a war we shouldn't even be fighting, that his Vietnam experience "defending" his country qualifies him to serve as Commander in Chief (how long before the Swift vets reply to that?), and that he will rally mysterious allies, none of whom he was prepared to name.
Even after Bush gave Kerry a chance to mention Poland as one of our sidekicks, Kerry simply could not bring himself to utter the name of that lowly land of peasants. Teresa, after all, was in the audience. Some political genius. Does he not know that there are still Polish-American voters to appeal to? Doesn't he know what they think of snoots? Better still, Kerry bailed out Bush by citing Australia as an administration ally in Iraq, a country inexplicably overlooked by the president when he singled out Tony Blair and Aleksander Kwasniewski.
As smooth and presidential and impeccably French and cosmopolitan as Kerry was, Bush mopped the floor with him late in the evening. Asked about Russia's Vladimir Putin, Bush at his folksy best talked about his "relation" with "Vladimir," extending his comments in such as way to drive home the point that he gets on real fine with this allied foreign leader. Kerry could describe nothing comparable. Instead, the only claim to Russia expertise he could offer was a trip he took there after the fall of Communism. Whereupon he produced the verbal gaffe of the evening, referring to the KGB headquarters as being located on Treblinka Square. What kind of empty suit would mistake the Nazi death camp for the Lubianka. This is a little more serious than the Lambeau-Lambert field fumble.
Instant replay revealed that at least Kerry managed to quote George Will intelligently -- did President Bush cite a single conservative authority?
Not to worry: Kerry jumped at the chance to declare "nuclear proliferation" the most serious threat to our national security. He repeated the term in succession, like a prize pupil happy to impress his class by showing only he knew the trick answer. In a Gary Hart-like way he connected the problem to his own doomsday pronouncements on the subject "six, seven years ago." Apparently he wrote a book called "The New War," which for some reason has received next to no attention this election year, perhaps because it reveals Kerry to be wishy-washy in conceding we live in a dangerous world. According to the New York Times, in early July the Bush campaign attacked the book for failing to name Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Further insights were offered in a Free Republic analysis and discussion, which among other things noted that Kerry wouldn't be eager to have defend such phrasings as "Yasser Arafat's transformation from outlaw to statesman..."
Speaking of such, blogland was filled with worries beforehand that Jim Lehrer would act like an outlaw Dan Rather rather than the statesman moderator he again proved to be. The kvetchers should have known better. Lehrer, it might be remembered, was one of the few mainstreamers to give the Kerry in Cambodia matter serious attention. He was competent and professional last night, so much so that at this late hour I can't recall a single thing he said. For better or worse, I can't say that about the other two participants.