Debates exposed three faces of Bush

October 18, 2004|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - There are moments in Jon Stewart's hilarious send-up of civics textbooks, America (The Book), when the truth pops up like a jack-in-the-box. Consider The Daily Show comic's take on political campaigns:

"Although the skills needed to woo voters are at times diametrically opposed to those necessary to govern them, the expensive and arduous process exists for a reason: to ensure that those who wish to govern are, if not the most qualified our country has to offer, the ones who want it the most."

This is more likely to elicit a groan than a laugh from witnesses to the political matchup of these "Skull vs. Bones" men. Neither is a slouch in the ambition category.

Yet those of us who watched all three debates saw more than ambition on display. When taken as a whole, these 90-minute appearances became a three-act play that put President Bush at the center of an unexpected narrative. It was the man we thought we knew who changed each time he went onstage as if he were still struggling to find the right way to play himself. It was the president, not his challenger, who seemed different in each debate.

Act One featured an edgy, scowling Mr. Bush astonished to find himself facing a tough critic after so many performances before adoring prescreened audiences. The TV cameras raised his lectern to the height of his opponent, but on the split-screen he shrank.

Act Two starred the incumbent on a tear, so belligerent and defensive that at times he seemed to be auditioning for the part of a disgruntled post office employee. "You can run, but you can't hide," may have worked for Joe Louis. In 2004 it's a better phrase to direct at Osama bin Laden than John Forbes Kerry.

As for the final act? This Wednesday night debate looked less like The O'Reilly Factor and more like Face the Nation with a touch of Oprah.

Two men with matching ties and opposing views had memorized the prepared lines of their scriptwriters. "Being lectured by the president on fiscal responsibility is a little bit like Tony Soprano talking to me about law and order in this country," said Mr. Kerry. "You know, there's a mainstream in American politics and you sit right on the far left bank," said Mr. Bush.

I never expected that the president would provide what dramatists call the "through line" of this television drama. After all, Mr. Bush has long been seen as simple and direct. What you see is what you get. He was cast in this campaign as the known quantity.

The man who shared the stage with him has been caricatured as a surfer in the wind. Mr. Kerry was cast as the unknown, the one to watch. Yet the senator appeared exactly the same in every debate: measured, cool, wordy, steady, unflappable. Like him or not, Mr. Kerry was himself. Mr. Bush? We hardly knew ye.

Presidential campaigns are about character as well as policy. And character is a dramatist's word.

The polls tell you that Americans think the country is on the wrong track; the president's job approval has slipped below the halfway mark. The Bush campaign decided that even those who think we're on the wrong track will follow the old leader if they are unsure of the alternative. They chose to brand Mr. Kerry with a pair of flip-flops.

But over the course of these debates, we saw Mr. Bush as uncertain in his role as Mr. Kerry was steady. Is this what they call role reversal? Toward the end, both men were asked what they have learned from the women in their lives. For Mr. Bush the lesson was "To stand up straight and not scowl." For Mr. Kerry, the lesson from his mother was "integrity, integrity, integrity." One man remembered stage instructions; the other man remembered the call to character.

When the curtain came down, we went back to dueling ads and media sound bites. The images that we saw on television may not withstand the distortions. But for three nights, over three acts, we saw two candidates for the leading role of this country, side by side. On one side, Mr. Kerry. On the other side, the three characters named Mr. Bush.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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