I must admit that I really enjoyed John Kerry clobbering George W. Bush in the first presidential debate last week. Bush “stayed on message,” as the advertiser like to say. As Pete Seeger used to sing about the Vietnam war, Bush’s message could be caricatured as this: “We’re knee deep in the Big Muddy, the big fool says to go on.” (The geography of Iraq might call for sand dune to replace Big Muddy.)
In form, this was the worst beating in any presidential debate since Ronald Reagan made Jimmy Carter sound hollow and remote in 1980. In both form and substance, it was the worst defeat any candidate ever suffered in a presidential debate.
Even Richard Nixon’s notorious flop at the hands of JFK in 1960 pales before this drubbing. Radio listeners in 1960 actually thought Nixon had won the debate, a response perhaps to his California “general American” accent as against Kennedy’s New England regional accent.
Here, anyone not belonging to what Herbert Hoover once called “the irreducible minority of the Republican Party” — that is, those who would support Donald Duck on the Republican ticket against anyone, even Washington or Lincoln, on the Democratic ticket — would have to only conclude that John Kerry, a very smart man, poised, and very much in control of the points he was trying to make, ran rings around George Bush, a not-so-smart man speaking in glittering generalities.
Rather than being sure of his principles, which is the media conventional wisdom, President Bush seemed to drift along on his prejudices, blind and blasé to the world around him and the mess his administration is making.
As someone who has taught history for 33 years, I have had many students like Bush, C-students who do as little work as possible, write cliché-ridden papers they think they can get by with, and drift through college without much of a clue in regard to their future.
I always try to help such students do better work, learn to write better papers, but I never contemplate voting for them for president.
With his wealth and family connections, George W. Bush, like Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Newman, never had to worry. He had a diamond safety net to protect him from bad grades, the draft during the Vietnam War, drinking problems and business failures.
On the debate itself, Kerry said things that would many on the left would disagree with, but he made it clear that he would not have launched a unilateral war against Iraq on the conditions that Bush did; that he would have worked with and through the United Nations to undermine the Saddam Hussein regime long before going to war; and that the Bush administration went against the U.S. major military allies, most of world opinion and knew little about the realities in Iraq or the Middle East.
Kerry hit hard at the cost of the war and its effects on U.S. society, including the weakening of the military in terms of its combat readiness to defend the nation in the face of serious threats.
Bush responded the way an announcer might, with looks of strained friendliness and clichés about a “free Iraq.”
The right-wing pundits have already begun to pick away at Kerry, citing “factual errors” in his presentation in defense of an administration which invaded a country based on either delusions (to give them the benefit of the doubt) or crude outright lies about weapons of mass destruction.
It is important that all anti-Bush people take advantage of this substantial debate victory: vote in newspaper and Internet polls, send letters and e-mails answering the arrogant right-wingers who are trying spinning this debate their way. Like Groucho Marx, in a famous movie line, answered an angry husband who caught him hiding in the closet of his wife’s bedroom: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?”
Fair-minded people have seen that the president, like the emperor in the fable, has no clothes. Now, fair-minded people must remove him from office if democratic elections are to have any meaning.
Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.