OK, after a few technical difficulties, I’m up and ready for the blogging of the debate. By the way, nothing in the debate is going to match Jim Lehrer on the pre-debate C-SPAN feed telling the audience he’s going to break out the whoop-ass if they make a squeak. And then doing a Mickey Mouse impression.
9:10 p.m.: First mention of Osama bin Laden by John Kerry. One shot!
9:11 p.m.: Wait a second, Dwight Eisenhower endorsed Kerry from beyond the grave? “Just yesterday, General Eisenhower endorsed me.” Ohhhh, John Eisenhower. Wait. Who?
9:13 p.m.: Oh snap. G-dub just pulled out the “my opponent looked at the same intelligence I looked at” line. OK, but wait, all of a sudden, “Saddam Hussein was never going to disarm.” He was armed? Fossilized vials of sarin gas from when Iraq was called Mesopotamia don’t count.
9:25 p.m.: Uh-oh. Lehrer just asked the “when would you be ready to leave Iraq” question, and Dubs just had several very painful moments of sputtering consonants, scrambling to find an answer (which, btw, he didn’t). He looked as though he were in actual pain during this one.
9:30 p.m.: Umm, Senator Kerry, sir. You’re allowed to listen to the question before you answer. Lehrer just asked something to the effect of, “Are soldiers dying in Iraq right now for a mistake?” Before he could finish, Kerry cut him off with “No.” Soooo … Iraq’s not a mistake now? This is why you confuse people, John.
9:32 p.m.: My opponent says we don’t have allies in this war, says Dubs, what’s he say to Tony Blair? What’s he say to Aleksander Kwasniewski, of Poland? Sorry, G, when you have to specify the country, you get no coalition-of-the-willing points.
9:36 p.m.: Awwww, G sounds so earnest! “And there’s going to be a summit! And — and — Mr. Annan’s helping!”
9:39 p.m.: Behind the scenes at Kerry’s debate coaching… “OK, see, Mr. Kerry, sir, you can’t actually ever say the word ‘lying.’ You may use ‘beguile,’ ‘dissemble,’ ‘misrepresent,’ ‘forswear,’ and ‘prevaricate.’ But you may not use ‘lie,’ or any form of the verb thereof.”
Jim Lehrer in a question said STTEO (something to the effect of, for future reference), “Mr. Kerry, you’ve accused Bush of lying about Iraq.” Kerr-Kerr actually said, “Well, I never used the Harshest Word, as you just did.” The “Harshest Word.” The man is whupped.
9:46 p.m.: Behind the scenes at Kerry’s debate coaching… “OK, umm, Mr. Kerry, sir, the word ‘Vietnam’ is verboten. A no-no. You may refer to it as ‘The War in which I fought,’ ‘The conflagration that took place in the nation-state abutting the nation formerly known as Campuchea,’ or, even, ‘The War that continues to justify my political career,’ if you want to be candid about it. But never ‘Vietnam.'”
9:48 p.m.: Prez-by’s refrain this entire debate so far is, “You can’t say _____ when you’re the Commander-in-Chief! The troops will be demoralized!” As in, “You can’t criticize the actions of the Commander-in-Chief when you’re the Commander-in-Chief! The troops will be demoralized!” See, it doesn’t work that way, G. I imagine, were Kerry to become President, he’d probably be much less inclined to call into question the actions of the President. Which debate coach came up with this line of argument?
9:54 p.m.: Wow. Bush. SSTEO: “I never wanted to commit troops, and when I had the debate in 2000, I never thought I’d have to. But the enemy attacked us!” What? These words in this order make no sense in our language.
9:58 p.m.: Kevin Drum, I am your DADDY.
10:03 p.m.: OMG. President Bush is doing. So. Badly. He’s had several severe sputtering moments, total deer-in-headlights madness. Sample Prez-by response (thanks, WaPo!):
LEHRER: New question, Mr. President, two minutes. You have said there was a, quote, “miscalculation,” of what the conditions would be in post-war Iraq. What was the miscalculation, and how did it happen?
BUSH: No, what I said was that, because we achieved such a rapid victory, more of the Saddam loyalists were around. I mean, we thought we’d whip more of them going in. But because Tommy Franks did such a great job in planning the operation, we moved rapidly, and a lot of the Baathists and Saddam loyalists laid down their arms and disappeared. I thought they would stay and fight, but they didn’t. And now we’re fighting them now. And it’s hard work.
I mean … WHAT?!
In order to simulate his actual response, you have to insert a lot of faltering moments of dawning realization that these sentences, when strung together, miraculously lose all meaning. Prez-by also seems very kind of sad and stressed and tired.
10:09 p.m.: Kerry’s doing an excellent job of keeping this a referendum on Bush, I would say. As long as the President has to stay on defense, I think Kerry’s succeeding.
But the President is really almost worryingly inarticulate tonight. He is actually having trouble getting words out. Every time he speaks, I’m thinking, “Is he going to make it through this?”
10:15 p.m.: “I fully agree that one should shift tactics. And we will, in Iraq.” First debate acknowledgment by Bush so far that the current tactic in Iraq iis wrong? And when exactly does that tactic shift happen? I mean, it’s been a year-and-a-half.
10:17 p.m.: Kerry says G-Dub has secured less nuclear material in the two years since 9/11 than we had secured in the two prior. That’s one I hadn’t heard, but a great sound byte, if it’s as it seems. I want to see more reporting on this. From somewhere other than ChronWatch.
10:22 p.m.: Dubs is totally on a first-name basis with Vladimir Putin. I don’t know what that means exactly; it’s definitely neither positive nor negative, it’s just so weird to hear.
10:26 p.m.: Kerry’s closing statement. “I believe our best days are ahead of us. Because I believe our future lies in freedom, not in fear.” Meh. Could have been better.
10:28 p.m.: Bush’s closing statement. “If America shows uncertainty or weakness in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy.” “We’ve climbed the mountain, and I’ve seen the valley below and it’s a valley of peace.” (Don’t metaphorical mountains typically symbolize success, and valleys typically signify defeat?)
My immediate impressions, pre-media spin: Before this debate, I was highly skeptical of the theories James Fallows cited in the Atlantic that President Bush has actually developed some neurological handicap that increasingly prevents him from speaking with articulation. Now, I could almost be convinced. I’ll rewind and transcribe one of his answers as accurately as I can, with pauses, falters, and hesitations. Each ellipsis is a pause of approximately a second, sometimes more.
Uhh actually we’ve increased uhhh funding for … umm … uh … f-for uhh … dealing with nuclear proliferation. By about 35% since I’ve been the President. And secondly, uhh, we’ve s-set up what’s called the … well, first of all, I agreed with the … my opponent that the … biggest threat facing this country is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist network. And that’s why … we’ve … put proliferation as the … one of the centerpieces of a multi-prong strategy to make the country safer. Umm … My administration started what’s called the Proliferation Security Initiative-ves-s. Over 60 nations involved with … disrupting … umm … the trans-shipment of information and/or … uh … weapons of mass destruction materials.
Listen for yourself, if you’d like. That was a typical sample of his speech quality the entire night. The transcription would be entirely invalid if not for the fact that if I attempted a similar transcription on Kerry, it would be entirely free of ellipses, logically structured, and generally near-flawless.
An argument could be made that any normal person would have had the exact same difficulties. I mean, I definitely sound more like that than like Kerry when I talk in public. But I’ve never been coached on this stuff, and I’m not the President of the United States of America.
It was almost difficult to pay attention to the substance of what each person was saying, after being completely distracted by the contrast between Kerry’s dead-on, pauseless diction and Bush’s shuffling rhetorical catastrophe.
But on the matters of substance, I’ll stand by what I said before. Bush was kept on the defensive the entire evening. Kerry deftly swatted aside the one criticism Bush predictably and ceaselessly kept making — that he flip-flopped on the war — essentially only answering it once, toward the end of the debate. And given the good quality of the answer he gave, it was the only time he needed to.