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Spinning the Debates


When I watched the first Bush/Kerry debate I thought, long before it was over, that Bush was the clear loser. But the commentators didn’t say that until late the next day – the night of the debate they reported it was it a “closely fought”, “good points on both sides”, “perhaps Kerry slightly more confident”. I wondered if the commentators had watched the same debate I’d seen!

Of course by the day after the debate there emerged the “gathering consensus” Bush had lost, as if an obvious truth could finally be safely spoken.

What fascinated me as much as the debates, was the energy poured into the “spins”. Friday I watched the second date with friends – Vicki Rovere (I’m posting her address in the “cc” list – she does great buttons, write her for a list), Carmen Trotta from the Catholic Worker, and Seyn, a Turkish friend who does magic things with computers. I’d already gotten two emails from Kerry folks giving me the telephone numbers to call the instant the debate ended, instructing me to say I thought Kerry had won. If I, who am not backing Kerry (in New York I’ll vote for Nader, if I was in New Jersey I’d vote for Walt Brown, Socialist Party candidate who will be on the ballot there, and if I was in a swing state I’d probably vote for Kerry) got two emails, one can assume “true partisans” on both sides had gotten lots of them and probably some phone calls, priming them to flood the networks with spontaneous reactions.

If you are getting this post you are probably a hopeless leftist, and, like me, wished Kerry had noted that US casualties in Iraq were at best no more than a tenth of the total casualties, that Iraqi civilians and insurgents had suffered ten dead for every American. You will have wished for a bit less enthusiasm about “hunting down the terrorists and killing them” and a bit more concern for some framework of international law. You will almost certainly wonder how, in the aftermath of the Israeli military actions in Gaza, in which over eighty Palestinians – some of them children – had been killed, and the hotel bombing in Egypt, at the frontier with Israel, in which over thirty Israelis were killed, it was possible for the Israeli Occupation of Gaza and the West Bank to be so totally ignored. And you would certainly join me in wishing that at least one of the debate formats had included all those running for President, David Cobb, Ralph Nader, Walt Brown, etc.

In fact, I only begin to hint at the things I suspect you, like me, wish someone had said. But in the real world of the limited choices on offer, it seemed to me clear Kerry had won the debate. As we listened to the commentators calling it a draw, Carmen said “You know, I’d never vote for Kerry in a million years, I think his politics suck – but I thought he gave pretty clear answers to the questions, that he had his facts, and that Bush was struggling to stay on top of things, why are the commentators are saying it was a draw?”.

Carmen, was right. Kerry had a full command of the stage, and while he didn’t make the points I would have made, and failed to make some points (as on the environment) he ought to have made, he spoke the English language. With Bush it was not simply that he was, at times, strident and un-Presidential, he failed to close with Kerry on point after point. (The exchanges on the import of drugs from Canada were devastating).

There is also the problem, with Bush, that he speaks a language where you need to intuit what he meant. As in the classic statement of the night where he said, of the danger of electing Kerry, “The truth of the matter is if you listen carefully Saddam would still be in power if he were President of the United States. And the world would be a lot better off”. (Emphasis added). Again and again as Bush spoke, one had to fill in missing words or make sense out of nonsense – as in this statement about the environment: “What happens in those forests because of lousy federal policy, is they grow to be, they, they are, they’re not harvested. They’re not taken care of.” Or his charm with new words, as in attacking Kerry’s health plan he said “This is different from saying, O.K. let me incense you to go on the government”. As an English teacher might be saying “where should I begin?”

Both men were harsh – they came as close as they could to calling each other “liars” without actually stepping over that line. My guess is that in these two debates the President lost ground not simply because he couldn’t answer “on point”, but because his style, his mannerisms, were not appropriate for a Commander in Chief. My sense, after Friday night (confirmed by later checks of voters) was that the “Bush base” would be invigorated with lines such as “you can run but you can’t hide”, and the Kerry base would feel reassured. But those uncertain voters, will, I suspect, move toward Kerry’s column. I say this without feeling Kerry has the passion one might wish for, and I say it while knowing that Bush on the stump is a far better campaigner. One of the things all of us have noted about the “Bush of the debates” is that he has lived so long in a bubble of town meetings where everyone attending has to sign a pledge that they support him, a bubble where by his own admission he doesn’t read the papers, and I assume doesn’t follow the TV news, that he is totally unprepared for the kind of cold, chilling lack of respect from Kerry and the silence of a TV audience which has been told to withhold applause for either candidate.

However I’m not writing this to get in digs at Bush – as I said, if you are getting this it is very unlikely you had planned to vote for him. What concerns me are two things which the debates and the post-debate discussions made clear. First, there is every effort by partisans on both sides – and this applied to the liberal commentators just as much as the conservatives – to tell us what we had seen, rather than to discuss what we had seen. The drive to “spin the debate” is now as important as the debate itself, and you may wonder, after listening to the commentators, “gee, maybe I didn’t see what I thought I saw”.

The more important thing which concerns me is how right wing our political climate has become. It is remarkable that a President of the United States can so totally dismiss global outrage over the Iraq war as something limited to France! Or that Kerry can be so determined to say that when push comes to shove he, also, will take any pre-emptive action needed, UN or no UN.

Have we, as a nation, so soon forgotten that the first sentence of our Declaration of Independence speaks about “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind”? Never in my life I seen a national leadership so contemptuous of world opinion – and a set of commentators, whether on PBS or CNN, so unwilling to touch this topic, as if it might be “partisan” to deal in facts. One can argue that our foreign policy has usually been wrong – and so I would argue – but right or wrong, even during the Vietnam War the Secretary General of the United Nations did not refer to US actions as a violation of the Charter. (Though indeed they were!) Even during the most fearsome moments of the Cold War, there was at least an effort to gain UN “cover” for our actions, all the way from the Korean War up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now we have a candidate for office who is mocking Kerry for even considering a “global test” of which wars we will impose on the world. Bush is saying this because it wins votes – because the public is with him on this. It seems that at least half the public has been persuaded that the United States has the God given right to go to war with whomever it wants, whenever it wants, on whatever basis it wants, always retaining, as Bush has, the right to change the reasons for the war after the event. The best Kerry can offer in rebuttal is that he can wage these wars better, that now Bush has gotten us into Iraq we have to stay there and win. Why? And why can’t Kerry hear Vietnam in his ear?

It isn’t enough to deplore Bush – “we the public” are the central problem. Bush and his advisers are playing off against our own fears, whether it is the Republican effort to make a political issue out of gay marriage, or the calculated and deliberate effort to link 9.11 to Iraq. Those familiar with European history and the rise of the Nazis will remember the infamous “Reichstag Fire”, February 27, 1933, when Hitler used the occasion of the burning of the Reichstag in Berlin to suppress freedom in Germany. September 11, 2001 has been used by the Bush group to paralyze us with the threat of new terror attacks, to imply – not at all subtly – that to debate the war weakens the troops and gives aid and comfort to the terrorists.

The cause of the Reichstag Fire was not clear (a “dazed Dutch Communist” was found at the scene, tried and executed – though it is extremely unlikely that the Germany Communist Party would have had anything to do with setting the fire. Others are convinced the Nazis set the fire themselves), 9.11 is our Reichstag Fire, and precisely as Hitler and the Nazi Party blamed “the Bolsheviks” for this act of terror, the Bush grouping has, from the beginning, blamed Iraq and used 9.11 as the basis for an ideologically motivated war in the Middle East.

I’m sitting just a mile from where the World Trade Center stood. I was here that day. I expect there will be future terror attacks and that no defense is really possible. I’m not going to discuss why Bush and the CIA and FBI couldn’t stop the 9.11 attack (though that failure on their part is, by itself, reason enough to oust the administration for incompetence) because I think no set of precautions can guarantee us against similar attacks in the future – a year from now, five years from now. We are living in a world where terrorism is a new problem, and the solution emphatically is not an increased military budget, a Star Wars program, and the abolition of the Bill of Rights. However, whether we are on the “left or the right” the problem of such attacks is very real and will remain with us for a long time to come, until we begin to sort out some of the problems overseas (such as the issue of justice for the Palestinians). To accept a danger as real is one thing, but to let that fear drive us, and blind us, is a very different thing and this is what the Administration has done, and the general public has to accept some share of responsibility for thinking that bombing Fallujah will make Manhattan, Kansas, safer.

I guess, in the final analysis, what disturbs me is that the “range of journalistic comment” is so narrow, so that if Bush tells ten lies and Kerry tells one, “responsible journalists” will pick one of Bush’s ten lies and deal with that, and then the one from Kerry, and not note that the ratio of truth between the two campaigns is hardly equal. (As one example, the attacks on Bush’s National Guard service are not actually “attacks” but a reporting of facts which the Administration, to this day, has been obscuring, losing documents, then finding them. The press is only doing its job in finally, gradually, giving us information about Bush, Cheney and the whole draft-evading crew. The “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth”, on the other hand, were not reporting facts, they were making dishonest, inaccurate attacks on Kerry’s record. The links to the Bush campaign about those ads were on the record. Under normal circumstances the Swift Boat Veterans ads should have resulted in a heavy and unanimous censure from the press, certainly not treated as being on the same level as the issues of Bush being AOL from the National Guard. If we think back to the Clinton campaign, where his non-service in the military was raised, we can recall that Clinton released, not immediately, but fairly quickly, the full account of his questions about the war, complete with copies of his letters to the draft board. (By the way, the smarmy comments by the first President Bush and by Robert Dole, about the Swift Boat ads, trying to give them further spin, diminished both men).

In short, and to close, the press, in its determination to be unbiased in a thicket of lies, has become intimidated by them. The whole framework of our politics has shifted so far off kilter that someone like Bush can actually be up for re-election! And a nation build with great courage and great suffering now trembles with fear generated by Rove and company. For the first time in my life I think that old line of FDR’s has the ring of truth “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

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