Home > It Was a Rout
It Was a Routby Open-Publishing - Tuesday 5 October 2004
By William Rivers Pitt
"Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!"
– Howard Cosell
There was a President on that stage in Florida on Thursday night, and his name was not George.
This was supposed to be the debate that played to the strengths of Bush and his administration. Foreign policy in general and the protection of the United States from terrorism in particular, according to all the polls and every talking head within earshot, are the areas where George supposedly commands the high ground. That illusion came crashing down on the stage in Coral Gables.
How else can one describe the demeanor and behavior of Bush, as seen by 40,000,000 television viewers and heard by millions more radio listeners? Shrill. Defensive. Muddled. Angry, very angry. Repetitive. Uninformed. Outmatched. Unprepared. Hesitant. Twenty four minutes into the debate, Bush lost his temper, and spent the remaining hour and six minutes looking for all the world as though he were sucking on a particularly bitter lemon.
This is what happens when you surround yourself with yes-men. John Kerry put the bricks to Bush and the last four years of his administration clearly, concisely, eloquently and with devastating effect. Bush reacted like a man who has never, ever had anyone tell him anything other than "Good job, sir."
That is what happens when you have to defend your record as President, something that no one in the media or elsewhere had managed to force Bush to do in the last 1,000 days. In the October 2000 debate, Bush managed to hold his own simply by making promises and telegraphing an aw-shucks charm. On Thursday night, Bush faced a reckoning at the hands of a man who cut his teeth prosecuting and imprisoning mob bosses.
This was not a Bush meltdown. It was an exposure. George W. Bush was required to speak for 90 minutes without having the questions beforehand, facing an opponent far less pliable than the national press corps. The man he has always been, stripped of the hero-worship veneer, was there for all to see.
Don’t take my word for it, though.
"They need to make Americans forget what happened tonight," said ultraconservative Joe Scarborough on MSNBC, speaking on what he believed the Bush campaign needed to do post-debate. Right out of the gate, Scarborough and the other talking heads gave the debate to Kerry, hands down, turn out the lights when you leave. "I think John Kerry," said Scarborough a bit later, "looked more Presidential."
A post-debate caller to C-SPAN announced herself as one who had voted for and supported Bush, and then described the Democratic candidate as "President Kerry." Freudian slip? We report, you decide.
At FreeRepublic.com, the bastion of far-right cheerleading, the faithful were fashioning nooses. "It’s really painful listening to Bush," said one Godebert. "Kerry has had him on the defensive from the beginning. Kerry sounds confident while Bush has a pleading defensive tone. Not good so far."
"Kerry looked much more experienced," said one whadizit. "He appeared to be relaxed and in control. W looked weary and worn and sounded weary and worn."
"Unfortunately," saith The Sons of Liberty, "Kerry looked more prepared. He seemed to have more facts, however questionable, at his command and he delivered his message succinctly. Even when confronted on his flip-flops, he had plausible explanations. On the other hand, The President seemed to lose his train of thought at times. He continued to repeat the same things, and he looked tired and a little haggard. He needs to do much better next time."
The comments went on and drearily on in this vein, in conversation thread after conversation thread, until a forum participant named areafiftyone threw the distraught legions a lifeline: "I had that feeling that Kerry had the questions beforehand. He seemed to have his answers right on target. Bush seemed like he was surprised by the questions. I wish they could investigate to see if the DNC got a hold of the questions beforehand."
Yeah, that’s it. Never mind that one participant had total command of the facts, an understanding of the foreign policy realm, a firm grasp on the situations in Iraq, North Korea and Afghanistan, while the other participant seemed shocked that faded platitudes and repeated campaign slogans weren’t getting the job done. The shattering, humiliating, obvious defeat handed to George W. Bush before a massive television audience must have come because moderator Jim Lehrer somehow conspired with debate host Fox News to telegraph the questions to Kerry beforehand.
The two most embarrassing moments for Bush, culled from a symphony of embarrassing moments, came while discussing the situation in Iraq. After many minutes of being pummeled about the head and shoulders with the realities of the mess he had created, Bush lost his temper for the ninth or tenth time and insisted, "We’re going to win this war in Iraq!" Yet it was many months and many dead American soldiers ago, on May 1st 2003 in fact, that Bush stood below a banner reading MISSION ACCOMPLISHED and proclaimed, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."
The second embarrassing moment came after Bush repeated his mantra about "staying the course" until the paint started to peel off the podium he was slouching over. We have to be resolute, we have to stay the course, we cannot send mixed messages to our troops and the world...and yet after an hour of bombardment from Kerry, Bush finally said, "Well, I think — listen, I fully agree that one should shift tactics, and we will, in Iraq."
So, OK, let me get this straight: We have to stay the course and not send mixed messages, and you’ve been blowing voluminous amounts of sunshine up the collective American backside for weeks about how boffo the Iraq situation is, but after an hour of taking rhetorical body blows from your opponent, you suddenly claim we are going to change tactics? It seemed for all the world that John Kerry, his opponent, convinced Bush that things in Iraq are as bad as people have been saying for weeks and months now.
The most amusing aspect of the whole debate came several hours before it began, when ABCNews.com posted an Associated Press article discussing the debate in the past tense. "After a deluge of campaign speeches and hostile television ads," wrote AP, apparently putting the Way-Back Machine they’ve been building to use, "President Bush and challenger John Kerry got their chance to face each other directly Thursday night before an audience of tens of millions of voters in a high-stakes debate about terrorism, the Iraq war and the bloody aftermath."
"The 90-minute encounter," continued AP reporter Nostradamus from his post somewhere in the space-time continuum, "was particularly crucial for Kerry, trailing slightly in the polls and struggling for momentum less than five weeks before the election. The Democratic candidate faced the challenge of presenting himself as a credible commander in chief after a torrent of Republican criticism that he was prone to changing his positions."
The bloggers got hold of this masterpiece of gun-jumping by about 4:00pm EST, and ABC scrubbed the page. As for the ’flip-flopper’ tag, you can put that particular Bush campaign talking point to bed. If this had been a boxing match, it would have been stopped. If Bush shows up for the next two debates, I will be, frankly, amazed. Watch for his campaign to reach for the chicken switch before the weekend is out, claiming perfidy on the part of the networks or some other sad folderol.
No amount of spin will be able to undo the reality of what took place in Florida on Thursday night. What happened on that stage was an absolute, immutable truth. Bush looked bad. Worse, he looked uninformed, overmatched and angry. Worst of all, he’s going to have to go through it two more times.
If he shows up.
William Rivers Pitt is a New York Times and international bestseller of two books - ’War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn’t Want You to Know’ and ’The Greatest Sedition is Silence.’