ADJECTIVES AND ELEPHANTS DEFINED FIRST DEBATE
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES - The first presidential debate had its own giant elephant in the bedroom, and it is an Asian elephant. Meanwhile, the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign has been concentrating its fire on the interpretation of adjectives. It would be funny if it weren't so serious. Perhaps tragicomedy is the right term that describes the week of Sept. 30, 2004.
The results are in, and Sen. John Sen. Kerry soundly defeated President George W. Bush in their first 2004 debate. Polls conducted immediately after the debate suggested that a strong plurality of those who saw the debate considered Sen. Kerry the winner.
The margin of victory in instant polling ranged from about 9 percent to as much as 16 percent in the first hours. By the weekend, public opinion had apparently solidified. The newer results were collected by CNN and presented on its web site CNN.com:
Newsweek's post-debate poll showed 61 percent of respondents said Sen. Kerry won, 19 percent said Mr. Bush won and 16 percent said they were undecided.
The magnitude of the victory, ranging in these polls from 3-1 to as much as 5-1, is decided and dramatic. How Sen. Kerry pulled it off is one question. Whether this signifies a developing pro-Kerry movement in the electorate is another. The actual substance of the debate is a third, more ominous issue.
First, the lighter side.
The negotiations about the ground rules for the debate apparently went on for weeks, resulting in a document that went on for 32 pages. For an amusing take on the resulting rules, check out humorist Christopher Buckley's parody "Rules of Engagement," available on line at www.newyorker.com. But the real-world campaigns were terribly serious about leaving nothing to chance.
Yet, in the execution, camera placement was bizarre, the split-screen format worked to Sen. Kerry's advantage, and the President perversely managed to accomplish a nearly perfect role-reversal as he recreated Vice President Al Gore's performance of 2000.
How this came about is by now worldwide gossip. As the news organizations have explained, the agreed-upon rules of engagement seemed to prohibit the split-screen presentation format, yet that is how most networks televised the debate.
For Sen. Kerry, the camera placement seemed wrong. In the split-screen format, he appeared on the left side of the screen looking downward and to the left, as if he were staring at the floor somewhere offstage. It was actually a little off-putting, but Sen. Kerry stuck with it. Couldn't someone have pointed to the camera and let Sen. Kerry know that he might try looking at his viewing audience once in a while?
In the end it didn't matter all that much. Discerning viewers eventually figured out that Sen. Kerry was directing his answers towards moderator Jim Lehrer, and most probably got used to the effect after a while. The network I watched also figured out that it needed to mix in a few other camera angles from time to time.
There was one slightly amusing faux pas of video-work that may have been particularly confusing to the less technically sophisticated viewers. Physically, moderator Jim Lehrer of The NewsHour on Public Broadcasting Staions, was seated with his back to the audience, looking at the two candidates who were, of course, facing the audience.
At one point, the tv screen featured the two candidates facing us and inset on the screen below them, moderator Lehrer. The effect was that Lehrer would look to his right and the candidate on the left would answer, then he would look to his left and the candidate on the right would answer. This was a live-tv violation of what is known in film work as the "180 degree rule." I can just imagine the howls of knowing laughter by all the film students who were watching.
None of this mattered. The critical decision that may take down the Bush presidency was made by the television networks as they chose to show both candidates nearly the entire time.
Bush fidgeted. Sen. Kerry didn't. Bush grimaced, rolled his eyes, frowned and seemingly bounced in place. Sen. Kerry took notes.
The effect was to highlight the least lovable of the presidential mannerisms. In these, the most critical 90 minutes of the campaign, Mr. Bush essentially invited people to view him as the simian caricature that his enemies have created.
One Sen. Kerry mannerism was criticized by some of his supporters, but seemed to me to be working in his favor: As President Bush would make some bold assertion that was meant to be adversarial, Sen. Kerry would nod as if in agreement. This had the effect of allowing Sen. Kerry to respond affably, if nonverbally, without having to say anything out loud or even to use any of his own time.
So much for technique and demeanor. The substance of the candidates' answers and the post-debate spin are different topics, but linked in one vital and tragic way.
The elephant in the bedroom is this question: Is our Iraq occupation turning into another Vietnam-style quagmire? Notice that Sen. Kerry did not even suggest it. No sane politician would do so in these final weeks of the election campaign.
But the question hung heavy in the air, unspoken.
The irony is that President Bush, in his own way, responded to that question, if only implicitly. His answer seemed to be "no," but also "kinda sorta maybe." It is "no" if he is left in charge. It is "maybe" if his opponent takes over.
His logic? We have to win, so we will. I have looked over the debate transcript and find little beyond this transparently circular argument.
Sen. Kerry's answer was more subtle. He tip-toed right up to the Vietnam analogy and stopped, pointing out the increasing threats to American forces from terrorists who flow across Iraq's borders, the lack of progress in nation-building and plummeting troop morale. Then he described his own plan to win.
Cynics may remember Richard Nixon's claim to have a Vietnam plan during the 1968 election campaign, but we may charitably offer Sen. Kerry the benefit of the doubt for the moment. He seemed to be suggesting a different analogy.
To put it simply, Sen. Kerry's plan seems to be to make the current Iraq occupation less of a Vietnam and more of a Gulf War I. The senator's presentation was velvet-gloved - there was no reason to rub it in personally - but the point was made: He referred to George Bush's father and the conduct of that earlier war in positive terms, then pointed out the differences between the strategy then and the lack of strategy now.
As a debate tactic it worked masterfully; as an exit strategy for a real war, it remains conjecture.
The Bush campaign has a problem in responding to Sen. Kerry along these lines. To criticize his plan is to remind people of the failure of hthe President's own "plan." Even to refer to the current situation using terms like "bogged down" or "quagmire" is to fall into that trap.
So the Bush campaign responded to its failure in the first debate by going back to the strategy it has been using all summer - complaining about adjectives.
For weeks, Vice President Dick Cheney has been pounding on Sen. Kerry's use of the word "sensitive." Recall that Sen. Kerry used the word to suggest that we could be more effective in getting other countries to put troops into the field if we didn't insult them. Anyone with a three-digit IQ understands the idea that it is worth trying a little courtesy, even with the French, if it might mean increasing our combined forces by a few tens of thousands of armed men. Cheney and the rabid right-wing-radio shills have been treating the word as if it were a synonym for effete.
The attacks have been entirely dishonest, but they seem to have worked among people who didn't know the context or the actual text of Sen. Kerry's remarks.
During the weekend following the Sept. 30 debate, the Bush campaign has been tossing rhetorical grenades at Sen. Kerry's use of the term "global test." In the debate, the context involved the question of engaging in preemptive warfare. Bush took Sen. Kerry's remark as an excuse to dust off his tired old theme that a Democratic administration would be subservient to foreign nations. Sen. Kerry could have said "smell test" to much greater effect.
As reported in Salon.com, a new Bush campaign ad continues to mischaracterize Sen. Kerry's position by suggesting, "So we must seek permission from foreign governments before protecting America?" As a viewer, I did not interpret Sen. Kerry's remark as asking other countries for permission, but rather the idea that something as serious as going to war requires very strong reasons.
We are reduced to arguing about how we construe adjectives. The publishers of Roget's Thesaurus will be thrilled. President's Clinton's famous "It depends on what the meaning of 'is' is" is hereby exonerated of linguistic babel-making.
At the same time, I don't think this approach will be nearly so effective for Bush-Cheney because their target audience already heard the original remark in its intended context - and most will understand what was meant by it.
To return to that Asian elephant in the bedroom one last time. President Bush assailed Sen. Kerry with the following set of remarks:
Now, my opponent says he's going to try to change the dynamics on the ground. Well, Prime Minister Allawi was here. He is the leader of that country. He's a brave, brave man. When he came, after giving a speech to the Congress, my opponent questioned his credibility.
The remark is reminiscent of 1966 or 1967. To argue that Allawi is anything but an American puppet would be to provoke gales of laughter were the parallels not so ominous. The leader installed by American armed force, the developing guerrilla war carried out in largely hostile terrain, the inadequate force levels, the porous borders connecting to hostile enclaves - the analogy with the Vietnam debacle is obvious and unsettling.
And the President speaks as if he were entirely oblivious to the fact.
With all due respect to the hundreds of thousands of words put out in the past 72 hours by all the learned critics and media pundits, I think the one most enduring image of the debate was President Bush standing there and lying through his teeth again about the situation in his war and about the puppet he has installed as Iraq's leader.