John Kerry wasn’t perfect on Thursday night – for one thing, I would’ve loved it if, after President Einstein snottily accused him of forgetting about that powerhouse Poland being part of Le Grand Coalition, Kerry had lightly noted how just last March the Polish president said that he felt “deceived” on the WMD issue. As Bush teeter-tottered back and forth between naked anger (not a good look on a sitting president) and a naked search for answers (the only look worse than anger), I had the same basic impatience with him that I have with network TV shows: “Who can take this bullshit? Who can possibly sit still for it?”
I’m always star-struck by performers who have only one chance to get it right, and have to do it with a lot of people watching, like the folks who staged live plays in the Golden Age of Television, or the 23-year old rookie who, suddenly finding himself in the postseason, has to tune out the crowd’s full-throated roars the better to concentrate on the incoming fastballs being delivered by a homicidally pissed-off Goose Gossage. I suppose that the top of this pyramid is occupied by the men who take part in presidential debates. For most of them you can tell the presidency is something they want more than anything in the world (which should probably disqualify them from getting anywhere close to it), and suddenly here, right at the brink of fulfilling all their aspirations and showing those guys back in Whittier or Brookline who the real losers are, they get shoehorned into a format that’s practically designed to lure them into making a foolish mistake – a mistake that will not only shred their lifelong hopes but also attach itself to their names like a mocking asterisk for the rest of their time on earth. In the meantime they have to memorize a thousand statistics and make sure their tie is on straight. They can’t sweat and they can’t butcher (too badly, anyhow) the names of any foreign heads of state. They can’t unthinkingly blurt out “Oh, give me a fucking break!” when their opponent says something false or ridiculous. Above all, they must appear “presidential” – that is, unflappable, except for those moments when emotion is called for, in which case their sincerity will be scrutinized under an electron microscope. The debates present our best chance to see them model the grit it takes to cut the deals and handle the fixers that presidential aspirants encounter every day of their campaigns, and to those of us who can be intimidated by nothing more than a surly waitress, that kind of poise is awesome stuff indeed.
Kerry was under all these strains and more. Regardless of how much his policies leave to be desired, I think he really does understand the importance of denying Bush the chance of turning the world even farther towards Bedlam. (We’ve seen what Bush did with less than half of the popular vote under his belt; Jesus weeps to think what he’d do with a real mandate.) Kerry also entered the debate trailing in the polls, and his campaign had the air of needing only one solid body-blow before coming apart at the seams. Before the debate there was much ado about how it would be the best, last chance to resurrect his hopes, and for once all the dire talk rang true. In recent weeks, Kerry and his speechwriters had looked stumped in finding a way to talk to the voters, with their nadir coming in an embarrassing stream-of-consciousness litany revolving around the phrase “‘W’ means ‘Wrong.’” I couldn’t even turn on the TV for a couple of days when that bullshit started up; it was too much like watching a firefighter trying to put out a four-alarm blaze by throwing ice-cream cones at it.
But about a week before the debate, somebody on Kerry’s team bothered to sit up one night with a bottle of scotch and a pad of paper and figure out how to talk about this whole Iraq thing, and when Kerry walked onstage his very carriage seemed infected by a new understanding. During the debate he stayed within himself while throwing out roundhouses like “colossal errors of judgment,” and the crucial moment in which he compared his misstatement about the war to Bush’s actually starting it – “Which is worse?” – came across as a genuinely adult appeal to the voters’ sense of fairness. He talked on a level well above facile zingers (anything less would’ve killed him considering his message), but he was also relaxed, merely stating his case as best he could for anyone who’d respond to it. In the end he left Bush with practically nothing to work with. The GOP is doing its best to milk one unfortunate turn of phrase – “global test” – by which Kerry presumably meant, “Will it make the international community toss its cookies again?” Rove, of course, is distorting this into something more ominous – an international “veto” which those face-fucking Frenchmen will use to keep us from defending ourselves.
So Tuesday night it’s Edwards and Cheney; here’s hoping Edwards slices his porky little opponent into a dozen strips of bacon. I still don’t think Kerry can win this thing, but no matter what he does from here on out, I’ll always be grateful to him for Thursday night. He put into the mainstream a lot of things that were crying out to be said.