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Bill Grigsby: Surviving The Debates

Surviving The Debates

By Bill Grigsby

I didn’t watch the presidential debate last night. But I did listen to it on the radio. It's hard to know who won, though, without subjecting oneself to the press gaggle about body language. So listening is like not wanting to know what kind of birthday cake you’re going to get—surprise me! There are few things I look forward to more in life than the press waxing banal about presidential body language.

Here’s what I heard without the images: the president sounded mad, and he kept insisting on stretching the rules whenever he could—which Jim Lehrer let him get away with (okay, it’s probably hard to say no to the president). Lehrer did a nice job of trying to clarify for the viewing and listening public on a few occasions as well. There were also several moments of uncomfortable silence, followed by the familiar scripted phrasing we’ve heard lo these last several months, years. The logical distillation reads something like ‘hop in the handbucket and don’t ask questions.’ Oh, and in case you didn’t know, bein’ president’s hord werk (eleven times, with one ‘it’s incredibly hard’ work just in case any undecided voters out there thought he’d been slacking these last four years). Even TV presidents have to werk hord.

John Kerry missed several golden opportunities last night, though. First, when Bush brought out his evidence that he’s been workin’ hard on a multilateral coalition (don’t ferget Poland!), he mentioned that Japan is holding a summit. Japan is holding a summit?? Is that what passes for leadership in the BushCo White House? Kerry could have mentioned that the leadership has to come from the U.S., who got us into this mess and needs to lead us to the ‘eggzhit strategy,’ the term Candidate Bush repeated like a counter spell in the 2000 debates.

Second, President Bush kept saying that freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan were good things for the world. This is the ‘they hate freedom’ subroutine. Of course they are. But it doesn’t follow logically that if we stick with BushCo we get freedom, and with Kerry we get tyranny and hatred. Karl Rove is a master salesman of hit-and-run logical fallacies. This is like mentioning Saddam and al Qaida in the same sentence—repeat ad nauseum, and people will assume it must be true, but you never had to explicitly claim a non-existent connection. Conflating the war in Iraq and the war on terror is another transparent trick on which the mainstream news media has granted countless free passes. Kerry shouldn't be giving him a free pass on any of this. BushCo's policies conflict with any reasonable trajectory of greater freedom or democracy for Afghanistan, Iraq or the Middle East.

Third, if the U.S. is indeed building 14 permanent bases in Iraq, Kerry could do a couple of things—he was right in saying that we need to be up front with the people of Iraq (including bypassing its ex-CIA puppet leader if necessary), and say we're unequivocally that we’re getting out. But few people know about executive order 13303 paving the way for protecting corporate interests in Iraqi assets. Why not rescind Executive Order 13303, so at least Paul Bremer has to take it off his resumé? Why not ask the president to pledge that he will cease construction on military bases until a legitimately elected government of Iraq and its people can decide if they want permanent military bases there? After all, last time we built permanent bases on hostile territory, a former CIA trainee named Osama bin Laden declared a fatwah.

Fourth, where did the president’s answer about the International Criminal Court come from, and why didn’t Kerry raise his hand, like Arnold Horshack (Oh oh oh Jim!), and bring up the torture of Iraqi prisoners, many of whose only crime was to get caught up in one of the military’s bad guy dragnets? And finish with the legal memorandum from Supreme Court Wannabe Albert Gonzales calling the Geneva Convention’s restrictions on torture ‘quaint.’ The problem, of course, is there’s so much material, and so little time . . .

For the president’s part, expect his surrogates to say this was just his straight-talkin’ git tuff style. ‘Course he was mad—them was fightin’ words, and we don’t take kindly to Big City Massachusetts Libruls talkin’ multisyllable trash in these heah pahts.’

Even on the radio, Kerry appeared to have Bush on his heels. One might guess the White House Media Maw will launch a campaign to lower the bar on debate skills, but there are risks to that as well, especially should the president opt for wardrobe alterations to ‘level’ the crucial podium gap. But as Mr. Bush implied, the best defense is a good offense, so prepare for disciplined outrage from the surrogates about the ‘negative tone’ of the debate, and for the story-hungry media to lick crumbs from the White House’s wringing hands. If you think bein’ president is hord werk, just try putting a positive media spin on yesterday’s debate for your Commander-in-Chief.


Bill Grigsby, ©2004 - Eastern Oregon University

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