JUDGING THE DEBATE: A WASTED NIGHT
The New York Post
October 1, 2004 -- IT'S a mark of how high- toned last night's debate was that the only real howler came when John Kerry called the Moscow headquarters of the KGB "Treblinka," which was a Nazi concentration camp, rather than by its actual name, "Lubyanka."
Yes, it was exactly the sort of debate that warms the cockles of every pompous commentator's heart — you know, the sort of person who complains that politics has gotten just so terribly dirty.
The debate was high-minded.
The candidates discussed their differences.
They didn't take cheap shots at each other. Bush said, over and over again, that you need to be consistent and resolute as president. Kerry said, over and over again, that the Iraq war was a mistake but that since the mistake had been made, he had a plan to win it.
They tussled on the question of whether bilateral or multilateral talks are best for dealing with North Korea. They agreed on the role of the African Union in dealing with the problem in Darfur.
The president admired John Kerry's daughters. John Kerry admired the president's wife.
God, was it boring.
Many people will say — have already said, in fact, because the bloggers never sleep — that because John Kerry stayed in the ring with the president for 90 minutes and didn't get knocked out, he won the night. They say Kerry came off as the president's equal, and that can only help him.
Well, it didn't hurt, but I don't know that it helped very much. That's not because Kerry didn't acquit himself well. He did — though I think he handed Bush an issue when he complained that American research into a nuclear bunker-buster bomb was bad because we are trying to prevent nuclear proliferation.
Message to John Kerry: The United States is not a nuclear proliferator. We are researching that weapon because it might help us take out nuclear sites like the ones you say you're so worried about in Iran and North Korea — or at least scare the pants off people who start playing the proliferation game.
But that's a matter for the blogs and the chat shows to take up over the coming days.
What was important last night was the high tedium factor. It hurts Kerry. Boredom isn't going to do anything to change the dynamics of the race in Kerry's favor. As for the president, because he's leading and because he has the enthusiastic support of his Republican base, Bush needs only to reassure people between now and Nov. 2.
So tedium actually works for him in this context.
Bush wanted to make clear that he intends to win the war in Iraq and that people think of him as a strong leader. He did so by contrasting his own consistency with John Kerry's vacillations — and he did it over and over again, until even his eyes seemed to glaze over from the repetitiveness.
There were no memorable lines. There were no gasp-inducing moments. But there was one grace note between the two men. It came around the 75th minute, so it's possible that half the audience had already found something else to do. Jim Lehrer, who did a magnificent job as moderator, asked the president whether he thought there were character issues that should prevent John Kerry from serving as president.
"Hoo," Bush said. "That's a loaded question." And then he proceeded to praise Kerry's service to the country both in Vietnam and in the Senate (before adding that "I'm not so sure that I admire the record" Kerry compiled as a senator).
That humanizing moment then got a little cloying when Bush started talking about the Kerry and Bush daughters, but it was the kind of thing that can deepen precisely the sense that the president knows and cares about ordinary people.
One more thing. John Kerry said, "They had to close down the subway in New York when the Republican Convention was there."
Um, no. They didn't.