A decisive result


A funny thing happened last night: the winner of the debate lost the election. President Bush was off his game and Senator Kerry delivered a polished performance (please, no manicure jokes). The assembled media—types—a dazzling array of pundits, flacks, spinners, and other desperadoes—awarded the nod to Kerry, unsurprisingly. To the mainstream media, the Democrat is always the winner of these bouts, but on occasion he actually is and this time several instant polls backed the verdict.

Bush looked tired and he completely failed to hide his irritation at his opponent's line of attack. Terry McAuliffe, the relentlessly puerile chairman of the DNC, announced that for his next stunt, he was releasing a video of the President's facial expressions, surely prompting some Democrats to wonder just how much the Bush people were paying this guy. Kerry, for his part, disdained throwing red meat to his hard—left constituency, those of the fevered brow and foaming mouth, adopting a measured, statesmanlike pose that remained unshaken throughout. Many of the exchanges were repetitive and utterly predictable. Still, there were moments of genuine passion.

Some of those exchanges had Republicans pounding the arms of their chairs in frustration and shouting rejoinders at the screen. Kerry talked about firmness and resolve, and somehow Bush couldn't bring himself to observe that his opponent had not managed to find the resolve to support removing Saddam Hussein's troops from Kuwait. Astonishingly, Kerry invoked the name of Ronald Reagan, and Bush failed to remind the audience that the Massachusetts liberal (where was that phrase?) had dismissed the rollback of communism in Grenada as the tactics of a bully. Deliciously fat pitches split the plate and the President's bat remained on his shoulder. Nothing about Daniel Ortega or the nuclear freeze; no mention of the Senate votes to gut intelligence services (somewhat relevant to the discussion, one might think).

On the topic of North Korea, an opportunity for Bush arose that he did not maximize, but didn't entirely squander. Kerry saddled himself with the objectively worse position, arguing for bilateral talks with the lunatic regime. Bush lined a solid single by pointing out that China's leverage was indispensable to a satisfactory settlement. Fine, but couldn't he have said something about North Korea's snookering of the ever—meddlesome Jimmy Carter? In a debate on the economy, would any Democrat miss conjuring up Herbert Hoover? This one should have been slammed into the upper deck.

But in spite of everything that went wrong for the President, his opponent had a Kitty Dukakis moment, one that was barely noticed by the glib, sophisticated analysts.

 Mr. Lehrer: 'New question, two minutes, Senator Kerry. What is your position on the whole concept of preemptive war?'

 Mr. Kerry: 'The president always has the right and always has had the right for preemptive strike...No president through all of American history has ever ceded, and nor would I, the right to preempt in any way necessary to protect the United States of America. [Here it comes] But if and when you do it, Jim, you've got to do it in a way that passes the test. That passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing. And you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons...'

Mr. Bush: 'Let me—I'm not exactly sure what you mean: passes the global test. You take preemptive action if you pass a global test? My attitude is you take preemptive action in order to protect the American people...'

Call it the mother of all sound bites.

When Darryl Strawberry joined the Mets, his godlike gifts left fans breathless—— grace and power and a long, lovely, sweet swing that called to mind Teddy Ballgame himself. There was that annoying business with left—handed pitchers: they'd get two strikes on him and throw a curve, wide, almost into the dirt. Always, always, he'd wave helplessly at it. Years later, now a veteran looking back on a career ruined by drugs but impressive nonetheless, he'd face one of those lefthanders. Two strikes and he knew what was coming. He heard the voices of the coaches; he played in his mind the tapes of past humiliations; he reflected on his hard—won wisdom and swore that in this season, at this moment, he could wait. Then the low curve would come, and he would launch that big sweep, born of sudden despair, and miss by a foot.

Something about that pitch defined Darryl Strawberry. The Ineradicable Flaw, it revealed the essence of this abundantly talented man; it mocked all human pretensions to perfection.

 So, here was John Kerry. An intelligent man, a professional politician in all respects, he had prepared carefully. He would say the word 'strong' many times. He clenched his fists and talked about firmness and resolve. He would not appear weak. Then that defining moment, the irresistible low curve—' passes the global test.'

 George Bush's delivery was hesitant at times; he sounded gratingly Texan; he looked short. John Kerry's voice was sonorous and his bearing, patrician. And at the end of the night, Bush remained the man who would always defend America; Kerry, the man who would have to clear it with Jacques Chirac.

Ronald Wieck   10 01 04

Ronald Wieck has written extensively for various chess and gaming magazines. A recent essay, 'Bush Lied?' appeared on the site, The American Thinker.