Wright from Washington City
October 11, 2004


The great debates
Aiming beer bottles at the telescreen



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Working for Strakon can be hell. Oh, I know, he comes off as a reasonable guy to the public, with his well-thought-out observations, his cute little bon mots, etc. But behind the mask is a ruthless taskmaster, heedless of the well-being of his cowering minions. He dragged me, whimpering, into the sunlight and, uttering horrible threats, forced me to accept the task of watching the election debates and writing about them. So it was that I sat through the first debate between Kerry and Bush (September 30), and later the one between the sinister Cheney and the shyster Edwards (October 5).

What's the worst thing about watching one of these so-called debates? It's the insults. Not the ones the candidates throw at each other, but the implied insult to the viewer. It's the implication that we're all a bunch of drooling morons who can be goosed into the right response by a buzzword or catch-phrase: Steadfast, Stay the Course, Tax Cuts for the Rich, War on Terr(or), etc. — like a rat pushing a button when a light goes on. And what's really sick is that, for many Americans, this is apparently true.

My own reaction, however, was somewhat different. My wife suffered through my fuming, sputtering, and occasional splenetic outbursts, and at the end said, "It'll be easy to do this article: you'll just write: 'First debate: bull$*%#! Second debate: bull$*%#!'"

Not that there weren't some entertaining aspects to the Bush-Kerry scrap. What a pair. As I've noted before, Bush has a certain chimplike quality about him, [1] while Kerry, who towers over Bush, is truly one of the most bizarre-looking humans I've seen in a while. His head looks as if it has been squeezed in a hydraulic press. With the "mute" button on, the general impression was of some kind of zombie game show, with Cheetah and Lurch as the contestants.

Serving as moderator of the Kerry-Bush scrap was the august Jim Lehrer, anchor of the eponymous News Hour and a man who has made a successful career of having no detectable personality. He was apparently chosen because:

1) his show is on public television and therefore somehow respectable;

2) it's utterly, thoroughly mainstream establishmentarian, with its reliance on conventional "authorities" with the right credentials as talking heads, and its haste to shut down anyone who dares raise anything smacking of real controversy — making it even more respectable;

3) it's completely drained of any emotion whatsoever — in contrast, for example, to Dan Rather's breathless dramatics — and therefore still more respectable; and

4) because the stone-faced Lehrer himself has never been known to crack a smile or show signs of any human feeling at all, which these days seems to be enough to earn one the reputation of being competent and even-handed.

As you may have gathered, respectability is an important commodity for these clown shows. If there's one thing politicians yearn for — as opposed to lust for, fight over, steal, etc. — it's respectability, because they know they aren't actually respectable at all. Perceived respectability is the camouflage necessary for preventing the unwashed from seeing their hideous, corrupt true selves.

Everyone knows by now that Kerry ran rings around Bush in the first "debate," scoring numerous hits on his "misleading" justification for the attack on Iraq, and the complete cock-up that followed. People are aware also that Bush did not react well to being contradicted or challenged, responding as he did with a seething, sucking-on-a-lemon expression similar to one you might see on the face of an angry, spoiled 13-year-old suburbanette. His adolescent grimaces were revealed to the public through the use of "reaction shots" by the networks, despite the announcement before the event that such shots would not be allowed. Viewing the second debate (which the dastards went ahead and telecast even though this article hadn't yet been published), non-establishment observers would have been well-advised to watch and see how well Bush had been retrained not to look sour. Would he stand there with some kind of desperate grin plastered on his face? Maybe someone hereabouts will write a little something to catch us up on that. [2]

A few things struck me as I suffered through the entire enervating 90 minutes of Debate Number One. The first is that, naturally, both candidates were coached to the max to forestall any spontaneity whatsoever, which might backfire into a dreaded "gaffe." With Kerry, that revealed itself in the curiously circumscribed motions of his hands. Most of the time it seemed that his upper arms were glued to his sides, with only his lower arms free to gesture, like Barney the Dinosaur.

With Bush, the tip-off was his pins-and-needles demeanor and his curious method of delivery. I once read a book by Konrad Lorenz, the maverick animal behaviorist, who documented the curious way in which shrews move about the landscape. According to Lorenz, they run at full speed over territory with which they are familiar. But if they encounter a new obstacle or change in the terrain, they put on the brakes and slowly feel their way along (shrews not having very good vision) until they come upon a familiar landmark, at which point they resume their headlong rush. So it was with Bush: he stumbled along, feeling his way to the nearest programmed phrase, such as "spreading freedom," or "10 million people have registered to vote in Afghanistan," or "my opponent looked at the same intelligence I looked at," at which point he fell upon it with palpable relief and reeled it off.

Another zoological reference occurred to me as well. A couple of times when Bush gave him an opening, the evenly tanned Kerry turned to him and flashed a blindingly bright quartz-halogen grin. It was almost like a flash bulb going off. (Is that why Kerry had his "tan" painted on? To enhance the contrast with those pearly whites?) It seemed to throw Bush: you could almost see him flinch. It reminded me of certain insects that, when menaced by a predator, will suddenly flash their wings, displaying a pattern resembling a giant pair of eyes. The insect uses the predator's resulting confusion to escape.

In any case, that phrase "same intelligence" was uttered by Bush in various permutations no less than six times in the course of the debate. I imagine Karl Rove drilling it into him: "When he attacks you for misleading the Congress, remember: same intelligence. Same intelligence. Same intelligence. Okay? Same intelligence. Say it with me ..."

It's a snappy comeback, but I wonder whether Bush's trainers were aware that it gave Kerry a huge opening that might have resulted in a fatal counterattack. Kerry had the perfect chance; it was handed to him on a platter: "You're right. I made the decision to vote for war on the basis of the intelligence I was given. But that intelligence was wrong. And it was cooked up by Paul Wolfowitz's crew over in the Pentagon, in a so-called Office of Special Plans, that was set up specifically to massage and distort the data to get us into a war.

"Those people are still there. Not one of them has been fired or disciplined for misleading the American people. How do you explain that, Mr. President? How do you expect us to believe anything your administration says when you won't even get rid of high-ranking officials you appointed who have demonstrated manifest incompetence and/or dishonesty?"

Imagine the headlines the next morning. Imagine Bush's stunned, rabbit-in-the-headlights response. But Kerry let Bush get away. And I have to wonder why.

Ronn Neff thinks it's because Kerry believes he can't afford to cross the neo-Trots. But I have problems with that. The neo-Trots are not kingmakers or power brokers. They're parasites who feed off their political hosts. They attach themselves and burrow into the flesh, receiving sustenance from the high-ranking jobs they help each other get, and from the funds that become available because they are seen to have influence with the powerful.

In return, they offer the host the benefit of their intellectual abilities, real and pretended — their rhetoric, their "analysis," their ability to pose as well-read and erudite authorities to half-educated politicians and to the hapless public. Even those supposed benefits, of course, come at a heavy price to the host, as Bush has discovered, because the neo-Trots, like all true parasites, act only in their own interests, and to hell with anybody else's.

That's not to say they have no power at all. They hunt down and kill rival parasites, but they do it by manipulating the host's immune system — that is, through behind-the-scenes-politicking, character assassination, and so on.

Whatever power neo-Trots have derives from their host. When the host dies or becomes moribund, they lose their power unless they are able to attach themselves to another source of power and money. Which they do without looking back.

Witness William Kristol, darling boy of Irving Kristol, one of the founders of the neo-Trot movement. With the generous use of patronage, networking, and nepotism, he landed a job as chief of staff to the hapless Vice Emperor Dan Quayle. While in that job, his reputation as an "intellectual" rose as steeply as Quayle's star fell. By the end of Bush I's term, Quayle was political road-kill, but as the crows picked at his eyeless corpse, Kristol strolled away and set up his own little think tank and a new magazine, using the sources of funds he had cultivated while in the Presidential Palace. There he has established himself as an ersatz eminence grise, the leading "intellectual" of the Republican Party, because he has read a few books and can speak and write in complete sentences using words of three and four syllables — accomplishments that to the average Republican hack must seem on a par with developing the Theory of Relativity.

None of that, of course, translates to the ability to muscle a Democrat presidential nominee. On the other hand, there is the puzzling ability of Deputy Minister of Attacking Poor Helpless Countries Paul Wolfowitz and his neo-Trot lackeys to remain in office despite his and his boss Rumsfeld's having made a complete dog's breakfast of the war on the Iraqis. It could be simply because Bush is so completely stubborn and pig-headed that he refuses to do anything that might smack of second thoughts. Or perhaps the neo-Trots have photos of both candidates performing unnatural acts with farm animals. I don't know. All I know is that Kerry could have clobbered Bush and didn't.

What followed was the absolute nadir of the evening, a hog-wallow of mawkishness and fake sentimentality worthy even of the great Bill Clinton:

LEHRER: New question, Mr. President. Two minutes. Has the war in Iraq been worth the cost of American lives, 1,052 as of today?

BUSH: You know, every life is precious. Every life matters. You know, my hardest — the hardest part of the job is to know that I committed the troops in harm's way and then do the best I can to provide comfort for the loved ones who lost a son or a daughter or a husband or wife.

You know, I think about Missy Johnson. She's a fantastic lady I met in Charlotte, North Carolina. She and her son Bryan, they came to see me. Her husband P.J. got killed. He'd been in Afghanistan, went to Iraq.

You know, it's hard work to try to love her as best as I can, knowing full well that the decision I made caused her loved one to be in harm's way.

I told her after we prayed and teared up and laughed some that I thought her husband's sacrifice was noble and worthy. Because I understand the stakes of this war on terror. I understand that we must find al Qaeda wherever they hide.

We must deal with threats before they fully materialize. And Saddam Hussein was a threat, and that we must spread liberty because in the long run, the way to defeat hatred and tyranny and oppression is to spread freedom. Missy understood that. That's what she told me her husband understood. So you say, "Was it worth it?" Every life is precious. That's what distinguishes us from the enemy. Everybody matters. But I think it's worth it, Jim.

"We prayed and teared up and laughed some!" Just makes you want to want to wipe away a tear yourself, doesn't it? This coming from a man who has made a point of doing his best not to acknowledge the growing U.S. death toll, to hide the resulting bodies from the news media, and who refused, until quite recently, to meet with the families of the soldiers killed in his War on Terr. My wife had to restrain me from throwing my beer bottle through the telescreen, and my hysterical screams made the lights come on next door.

You can just see the rumpled, sweaty campaign consultants sitting around a conference table littered with empty plastic bottles and Chinese-takeout cartons, saying to each other, "We've got a real perception problem here. We can't be seen as being insensitive to bereaved families."

"Okay, get the Pentagon to round up a tame bereaved military wife for a photo-shoot and sobfest."

"Great! That'll nip any criticism in the bud!"

Almost as disgusting was another programmed line: "denigrate the contributions," which Bush used to justify a pose of being deeply offended:

BUSH: My opponent says we didn't have any allies in this war. What's he say to Tony Blair? What's he say to Alexander Kwasniewski of Poland? You can't expect to build an alliance when you denigrate the contributions of those who are serving side by side with American troops in Iraq.

And a few moments later:

KERRY: ... When we went in, there were three countries: Great Britain, Australia, and the United States. That's not a grand coalition. We can do better.

LEHRER: Thirty seconds, Mr. President.

BUSH: Well, actually, he forgot Poland. And now there's 30 nations involved, standing side by side with our American troops. And I honor their sacrifices. And I don't appreciate it when [a] candidate for president denigrates the contributions of these brave soldiers.

That time my wife grabbed the beer bottle out of my hand. But I shouldn't have been upset. What politician would pass up the chance to swell to bursting with righteous indignation?

Certainly Dick Cheney didn't. In fact, he used almost the same line himself in his confrontation with Edwards:

CHENEY: It's hard, after John Kerry referred to our allies as a coalition of the coerced and the bribed, to go out and persuade people to send troops and to participate in this process.

You end up with a situation in which — talk about demeaning. In effect, you demean the sacrifice of our allies when you say it's the wrong war, wrong place, wrong time, and oh, by the way, send troops.

And a few seconds later:

CHENEY: [U.S. puppet Iraqi Prime Minister Alawi] came recently and addressed a joint session of Congress that I presided over with the speaker of the House. And John Kerry rushed out immediately after his speech was over with, where [Alawi] came and he thanked America for our contributions and our sacrifice and pledged to hold those elections in January, went out and demeaned [Alawi], criticized him, challenged his credibility.

Good heavens! To challenge the credibility of a former Saddam thug who doubled as a spy for the CIA and now acts as Washington's puppet! Shocking!

And then, a few moments later, triumphant in his indignation:

CHENEY: Classic example. [Kerry] won't count the sacrifice and the contribution of Iraqi allies. It's their country. They're in the fight. They're increasingly the ones out there putting their necks on the line to take back their country from the terrorists and the old regime elements that are still left. They're doing a superb job. And for you [Edwards] to demean their sacrifices strikes me as ...

I surmise that Cheney — more linguistically savvy than his "boss" — decided to use the word "demean" instead of "denigrate" because of the possibility that some blockhead would get confused by the second word's resemblance to the "n" word. After all, a Washington City official was fired a couple of years ago for using the word "niggardly."

The Edwards-Cheney Show was a little easier to take than the Kerry-Bush face-off, perhaps because both participants actually spoke like grownups. Both were obviously much more intelligent than their empty-suit senior partners.

It was altogether a more dignified affair, with the two men sitting at a table instead of standing up. Cheney looked presentable, if sullen, but Edwards was just about the prettiest political candidate I have ever seen. He seemed to glisten under the lights, as if he were freshly varnished. Even his unfortunate resemblance to a woodchuck was less apparent than usual.

Cheney had been billed as a skilled debater, and it soon became apparent what that meant: he had the ability to prevaricate and oil his way out of sticky places while keeping a straight face. One example was his counterattack when Edwards pointed out that 90 percent of the "coalition" casualties in Iraq have been U.S. soldiers, because the regime can't get anybody else to send troops in any significant numbers:

CHENEY: Well, Gwen [moderator Gwen Iffil], the 90 percent figure is just dead wrong. When you include the Iraqi security forces that have suffered casualties, as well as the allies, they've taken almost 50 percent of the casualties in operations in Iraq, which leaves the U.S. with 50 percent, not 90 percent.

Nice trick: it drew attention away from the lack of international support. And it gave Cheney a chance to segue into his pompous indignation over Edward's "demeaning" of the puppet Iraqi "allies" noted above.

Cheney also greased his way out of Edwards's attack on him for pushing the fictional Bin Laden-Saddam connection:

EDWARDS: ... And doing it the right way meant that we were prepared; that we gave the weapons inspectors time to find out what we now know, that in fact there were no weapons of mass destruction; that we didn't take our eye off the ball, which are al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, the people who attacked us on September the 11th....

... I want the American people to hear this very clearly. Listen carefully to what the vice president is saying. Because there is no connection between Saddam Hussein and the attacks of September 11th — period.

The 9/11 Commission has said that's true. Colin Powell has said it's true. But the vice president keeps suggesting that there is [a link]. There is not. And, in fact, any connection with al Qaeda is tenuous at best.

MODERATOR: Mr. Vice President, you have 90 seconds to respond.

CHENEY: The senator has got his facts wrong. I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11, but there's clearly an established Iraqi track record with terror.

Note how he used a distinction without a difference. In fact, Cheney has consistently pushed the idea that Saddam and al Qaeda were connected, long after the supposed meeting between their representatives in Prague was revealed to be a hoax. A year ago he told the Heritage Foundation: "[Saddam] also had an established relationship with al Qaeda, providing training to al Qaeda members in the areas of poisons, gases, making conventional bombs. Saddam built, possessed, and used weapons of mass destruction. He refused or evaded all international demands to account for those weapons." [3]

Cheney's assertions, in the debate, about the disastrous Afghanistan incursion were just as disingenuous:

CHENEY: John Edwards, two and a half years ago, six months after we went into Afghanistan announced that it was chaotic, the situation was deteriorating, the warlords were about to take over. Here we are, two and a half years later, we're four days away from a democratic election, the first one in history in Afghanistan. We've got 10 million voters who have registered to vote, nearly half of them women.

Ten million voters. Hadn't we heard that line before? Yes we had, from Bush the previous Thursday:

BUSH: ... And the Taliban are no longer in power. Ten million people have registered to vote in Afghanistan in the upcoming presidential election.

And a few moments later:

BUSH: ... And that's what people are seeing now is happening in Afghanistan [sic].

Ten million citizens have registered to vote. It's a phenomenal statistic. They're given a chance to be free, and they will show up at the polls. Forty-one percent of those 10 million are women.

Ten million happy Afghan voters! And so many of them women! ("We'll show 'em we're not a bunch of Neanderthal male chauvinists with that line ...") Things must be going great over there.

In reality, what John Edwards said two and a half years ago about Afghanistan being chaotic, the warlords taking over, and so forth, has turned out to true, with bells on. Muhammad Karzai, the extremely well-dressed President of Afghanistan by the grace of the Empire, is routinely referred to as the Mayor of Kabul, because he has no power or authority outside that city. In fact, in much of Kabul itself, power has devolved to local men with guns and followers. Just what those 4.1 million happy women voters can do about that is anyone's guess.

So far as Cheney would have us believe, however, none of it is happening:

CHENEY: ... But they're making significant progress. We have President Karzai, who is in power. They have done wonders writing their own constitution for the first time ever. Schools are open. Young girls are going to school. Women are going to vote. Women are even eligible to run for office. This is major, major progress. There will be democracy in Afghanistan, make no doubt about it. Freedom is the best antidote to terror.

They've written their own constitution! Can a McDonald's be far behind? [4]

To his credit, Edwards hammered Cheney effectively on this and others of his distortions:

EDWARDS: Here's what's actually happened in Afghanistan, regardless of this rosy scenario that they paint on Afghanistan, just like they do with Iraq. What's actually happened is they're now providing 75 percent of the world's opium.

Not only are they providing 75 percent of the world's opium, large-cut [sic] parts of the country are under the control of drug lords and warlords. Big parts of the country are still insecure.

And the reality is the part of Afghanistan, eastern Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden is, is one of the hardest places to control and the most insecure.


Don't get me wrong. I'm not hinting that the Democrats were somehow superior to the Republicans in any useful way. Witness their attacks on Cheney and Bush for going to war on false pretenses, while trying to have their cake and eat it too by not repudiating the war outright, to avoid alienating all the knee-jerk, support-our-troops "patriots." No, they say. They'll prosecute the war better than Bush. They'll somehow get the Europeans to help out, about the same time their crash research program produces genetically engineered pigs with wings.

And let's not forget their well-worn blather about taxing the "rich," free prescriptions for poverty-stricken widows and orphans, and all the other "programs" the Democrats promise, despite the best efforts of the Bush "No Child Left Alone" regime to co-opt them. Not to mention Edwards's revolting "I-was-born-in-a-log-cabin" attempt to demagogue using his supposedly humble origins. Who cares if he had to walk 10 miles to school through the blowing snow, and eat library paste for lunch? Bill Clinton had humble origins, too, and they don't seem to have improved his character any.

The worst thing about this whole charade is that the issues mean nothing except for their usefulness as debate points, and the Ministry of Truth, also known as the News Media, plays it all as some kind of giant "reality" telescreen show. Who will lose the most points by twitching at the wrong time? Who'll score the most hits on his opponent? Whose eyes are shiftier? Who gets hurt by the latest "report?" [5]

Who cares?

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