Say it Again, Dubya!

Kerry was the better debater last night. But Bush proved long ago how to lose arguments and win anyway.

By Steve Burgess 1 Oct 2004 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Thursday's televised debate between President Bush and his Democratic challenger Senator John Kerry caused some programs to be delayed or pre-empted. But Survivor went on as scheduled. Fitting -- vicious tribal votes seemed in keeping with the theme of the evening.

Much is expected of presidential debates. They are the epic face-to-face showdowns that will crystallize a campaign, cutting through advertising crap to settle the argument once and for all. They are the crucible that will reveal character flaws. Someone will blink, or sweat (Nixon, 1960), or declare that Poland is free from Soviet control (Gerald Ford, just a little ahead of his time in 1976).

Debates, it is widely held, allow the public to see the candidates for what they really are.

It rarely happens that way. Presidential debates are frequently non-events, particularly when they are formatted in the bloodless manner of Thursday's face-off.

Looking for a zinger

John Kerry started the night behind the eight-ball. Unlike the president, Kerry needed a decisive victory in tonight's debate. Such victories are not scored on fact alone. More often they turn on such meaningless piffle as Ronald Reagan's rueful catchphrase, "There you go again."

Kerry did well Thursday night. He made his case that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake and a diversion from the fight against Osama Bin Laden. He looked firm and focused, then loosened up when necessary.

But is it already a lost cause?

The most acclaimed presidential debates in American history were not actually presidential. The 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates pitted Abraham Lincoln against Stephen Douglas in a series of heated discussions about the future of slavery. But those debates were actually held during an Illinois Senate race (which Lincoln lost.

But Honest Abe's stirring rhetoric catapulted him to national fame and eventually the Republican nomination for President in 1860 -- where he defeated Douglas, the Democratic nominee). Those debates were so substance-heavy that they virtually set the parameters for the coming ideological combat on human bondage.

Hillbilly hypnotist

But the modern history of debates has been shaped more by visuals than content. It's not just the famous five o'clock shadow of Richard Nixon -- it's the general likeability factor. Bush scores big on likeability with his fellow Americans (albeit with no one else).

On stage Bush can be like a hillbilly hypnotist, somehow able to convince his audience that nothing equals something. Watching footage of Bush's debate against Texas governor Ann Richards in 1994, one doesn't know whether to laugh or cry:

Bush announces proudly that he has never held elected office.

Governor Richards points out that Bush has never held office only because he ran for Congress and lost.

Bush responds with a joke and then claims that he's really a businessman.

Richards responds that his business ventures have lost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Bush says this is a distraction from the issues.

To sum up: Bush has been revealed in this exchange as a failed politician and a failed businessman. What, exactly are his credentials for the governor's job? He never provides any.

Bush won that election. He looked amiable.

Human tape loop

The perpetually low expectations that follow Bush mean that he can accomplish precious little and still win. No one is going to watch George W. Bush in 2004 and say, "Good Lord! He's no intellectual!" If American voters were going to vote against Bush because he appears, shall we say, uncomplicated, he would already be at single digits in the polls. In fact he's comfortably ahead.

Last night Bush looked capable. He repeated his programmed phrases ad nauseum, as he always does. Bush stays on message like a tape loop. Enlightening it isn't -- effective, certainly.

Sometimes the results of a debate are immediately obvious, such as Senator Lloyd Bentsen's famous riposte to Dan Quayle: "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

More often though, modern debates are won not on the night but in the days that follow, as initial impressions firm up into hard opinions. Commentators almost always follow a debate by stating that there was no "knockout blow," only to find later that consensus has identified just such a key moment.

Kerry looked presidential

By most accounts, George W. Bush has a safe lead in the polls and could afford to play defence in this first of the three scheduled debates. Kerry may benefit from the perverse fact that he has had a very bad six weeks, making his solid performance look that much better by comparison. He succeeded in looking presidential, which is half the battle in this forum.

It's too soon to say whether John Kerry will gain any lasting traction from his forceful delivery Thursday. Frankly, I wouldn't bank on it.

Vancouver writer and broadcaster Steve Burgess is a regular contributor to The Tyee.

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