October 3, 2004
By Brian Bentley
In 1966, John Kerry stood before his Yale graduating class and thousands of others and delivered a remarkably polished speech critiquing American foreign policy and questioning U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The speech was well-rehearsed, analytical and very nearly perfect. But in its perfection, something important was lacking.
"It was a policy wonk's speech, pretty analytical and dispassionate,” recalled his brother, Cameron Kerry, who was in the audience that day.
Five years later, after his baptism of fire in the Vietnam War, John Kerry delivered a very different kind of speech before a Senate committee. Wrenching, emotional and direct, Kerry's anti-war diatribe concluded with a question that still hangs in the air nearly 35 years later: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
At the first Presidential debate of the 2004 race, George W. Bush could not answer that question. But John Kerry answered a big question in the minds of voters and viewers. Which Kerry would stand before us in Miami – would it be the plodding Clark Kent Kerry or the Superman of the Swift Boat?
Like the Man of Steel, Kerry hit the stage with hurricane force and had Bush crouching for cover from the very outset. This was the crunch-time John Kerry, the fighter we had been told was lurking underneath all that hair. It was a performance delivered better late than never. In the past two months, Kerry had swung in the polls from five points up to eight points down and never, in the history of presidential elections, was more riding on the outcome of one evening.
With his career on the line, Kerry's Mission was formidable. On the one hand, he had to be the anti-war candidate to rally his own demoralized Democratic troops and maybe woo some of the knuckleheads who plan to waste their votes on Ralph Nader. On the other hand, there are real fighting troops in the field and a slew of moderates who would not settle for Kerry channeling his inner Jane Fonda. Surrounded by hostile forces, he took aim and hit his political target dead center.
Kerry built his arguments around the cornerstone theory that Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein are about as connected to each other as George W. Bush is to his European allies. The Senator turned the emphasis away from his own credibility and pointed us in the direction of Bush's dismal job performance. Walking a semantic tightrope, Kerry skillfully and at long last, defined his opposition to the conflict in Iraq, not as a theoretical opposition to war being an instrument for liberty, but as an opposition to THIS War being the wrong way to combat terror right now.
Bush squirmed noticeably when Kerry delivered the best sound bite of the evening, calling Bush's sinking campaign in Iraq a "colossal error in judgment," adding that there was a vital difference between "certainty" and foolish stubbornness and that it is possible to be certain and still be wrong. Then, in a speechwriting tagline for the ages, Kerry managed to hit two birds with one stone – the listless economy and the War. Scowling like a disappointed professor at the smirking President, Kerry said, "We had Bin Laden cornered in Tora Bora. Instead of doing the job ourselves, we sent a bunch of Afghan Warlords to do it. We outsourced that job too."
To his credit, Bush went toe-to-toe with Kerry for the first half hour. He made the valid point that despotic dictators don't pay much attention to U.N. Resolutions, and that Kerry's campfire song vision of universal alliances between nations would wind up in ashes. Bush repeated that Kerry had access to the same military intelligence that he did and still voted for the War. The President reached out to millions watching in foreign lands when he promised freedom to "those who suffer in silence, yearning for liberty." And then, Bush tweaked the faithful with a reference to prayer that probably solidified, in just 45 seconds, as many votes as Kerry did in 90 minutes.
But at about the 35 minute mark in the debate, something extraordinary happened. Bush apparently ran out of original material. This was not a good thing as the debate still had an hour to go. Kerry was performing with the stamina of a porn star and looked like he could keep it up for another three hours. As Bush fidgeted and slouched and stammered, the world was finally treated to the kind of real human interaction that had been denied them after months of orchestrated campaigns.
The very same time-management compulsions that forced Kerry to rush to fit his acceptance speech at the DNC into a 59 minute and 55 second slot, worked in his favor this time. He delivered his answers on cue, beating the red light on the podium with ease while Bush continually asked for 30 second rebuttal time and then just stood there speechless, staring blankly at the camera, looking like Johnny Carson might if a small zoo animal was peeing on his head.
To fill the dead air, Bush repeated himself again and again and still again. You could almost feel the audience in the auditorium collectively gasp, half in embarrassment for the moment, half in amazement that something spontaneous was actually happening. The reaction shot cutaways, which the Bush camp had lobbied hard to avoid, did serious damage to Dubya. While many would argue that there's more to being a President than being a great debater, few could debate that George W. Bush did not look very Presidential whenever Kerry was digging in for the kill.
Kerry was in the zone from the get-go. When Bush asked him how he could support our troops and still vote against 87 billion dollars in military improvements, Kerry countered with the admission that, "I made a mistake in how I talk about the War. But the President made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?"
Time and again, Kerry fleshed out his points with effective and stinging examples. After both candidates agreed that nuclear proliferation was their chief concern, Kerry, ever the shrewd lawyer and prosecutor, provided a brilliant summation of Bush's bungled diplomacy. Several years ago, after Colin Powell invited the president of North Korea to talks limiting nuclear weapons, Bush reversed Powell in public and sent the embarrassed North Koreans home. Kerry said, "For two years this administration didn't talk at all to North Korea. During that time, our inspectors were kicked out, our television cameras were kicked out and today they have four to seven nuclear weapons and we have one of the most serious reversals or mixed messages that you could send."
As the first debate wound to a close, you clearly felt that Kerry had the audience in the palm of his ski glove. It was a magical night, like one of those solar phenomenons where all the planets line up a certain way and a giant tidal wave is created that lays waste to an oligarchy.
Bush found no mercy from his opponent and certainly no mercy in the beady, black eyes of moderator Jim Lehrer. The PBS anchor presided over the evening with the stiff, humorless air of a Dean of Admissions warily interviewing two prep school candidates. When the debate ended, Bush and Kerry met center stage and were joined by their families. It's hard not to like the Bush clan. Stepford Wife Laura and her two Girls Gone Wild daughters have approachable appeal, while folks are still trying to figure out what's up with Teresa Heinz Kerry. The would-be First Lady wandered onto the stage like a tipsy Liz Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
In retrospect, both candidates missed opportunities. Kerry should have hammered harder on hidden administration agendas. What does Bush have planned for North Korea and Iran, two countries that actually have WMDs? What priority will be given to our domestic agenda if we continue to franchise Freedom with the expansionist zeal of a fast-food chain? When Bush promised onstage that we would continue with the all-volunteer army, Kerry could have quoted the recent report that 622 of the 1,765 Individual Ready Reserve members who were supposed to report on September 28th for additional tours of duty, failed to show up and many are considered AWOL. Can you spell D-R-A-F-T?
While the Kerry team missed a priceless opportunity to drop the D word, the Bush speechwriters flubbed by not defining the G.O.P.'s positive influence on Libya. The argument could be made that when a country as dangerous as Libya decides to disarm at the same time that we are invading their next door neighbors, the reason is likely to be military, not political, pressure.
As we look forward to Debate 2, those in search of a history lesson can learn much from the mistakes and flawed logic of George W. Bush. His warped view of diplomacy and lack of understanding of Imperialist-style aggression is rooted in the belief that when you've got the other guy outgunned, it doesn't really matter what he thinks. His team swears by the notion that you can force and intimidate countries into seeing things your way. This works in the short term, but taken long range, it's a philosophy that plants seeds of resistance that eventually sprout into a virulent form of hate.
In the eyes of many in the Third World, the U.S. and not Al Qaeda, is the most serious threat to all that is sacred. This is a War we cannot win with our present strategy and this is why the situation has now digressed to the point that average Joes – the Iraqi butchers, bakers and candlestick makers – are willing to blow themselves up for a cause far mightier than any Bradley armored vehicle. Sadly George W. has never understood the difference between winning a military battle and losing a war for the will of the people.
This is the reason the world needs John Kerry just as much as we do. He believes that if you have a small army of rats in an otherwise healthy building, you lay traps to catch the rats one by one; you don't blow up the entire building. Bush's greatest success in Iraq – the capture of Saddam Hussein in a spider hole – was just the kind of low casualty, intelligence-based operation that John Kerry so espouses.
Success for George W. Bush comes whenever he is able to manipulate millions of Americans into adopting his black and white view of the world, an ideology without shades of gray. Bush wants us to believe that if you're against the War, you aren't supporting our troops. You're not a religious person who cherishes life if you believe that a woman has the right to choose what happens inside her own body. And if you don't vote for his re-election, you are inviting disaster.
Fear of the unknown continues to be the fuel that drives this propaganda machine. In poll after poll, people bemoan the country's direction. But out in Bushland, in that vast Midwest and Southern state disconnect, folks are too scared and confused to shake things up. How many of these voters, so terrified of change, are looking towards the future with hope, or running from the past in fear?
Still there is much to be excited about. If John Kerry can maintain his debate advantage when the topics turn to domestic issues (Bush's obvious weak point) the momentum will stay on his side. With his performance Thursday night, Kerry achieved the credibility needed to get out the Democrat and progressive vote, to actually make people visualize this guy as President.
Can John Kerry really change voter's minds? With roughly 95% of the country supposedly already decided, this is the harder question. The impact of the debates won't be decided for sure until Election Day. Don't be surprised if the country suffers a massive deja-vu flashback to 2000: Nader making the ballot in both Florida and Wisconsin and siphoning away precious votes, Florida casting the deciding Electoral College and a disturbing number of people arriving at the conclusion that Bush won the debates, even though they never actually saw them.
But the good news is what John Kerry did NOT do in Debate 1. He did not salute the camera, nor did he windsurf his way into a gale of numbing statistics and boring minutiae. This was John Kerry Version 9.0 Optimized. He was clear, simple and easy to access. If just 4% of the voters have bounced Kerry's way, the contest is on again. Back in 2000, Al Gore led by 8% going into the debates. Before Thursday, the pundits said that the 2004 election was all up to George W. Bush. It was his to lose. If John Kerry keeps this up, it will be his race to win.