Instantaneous expert commentary on presidential debates is almost entirely useless - and I include my own contributions thereto, whether or not they qualify as "expert". What lasts are strange, weird, arbitrary, peripheral aspects. Twenty years ago, in the first debate, Al Gore came on like the class know-all and drowned out Bush's answers with great heaving sighs; he was over-rouged, like an English pantomime dame, and (per my late colleague Bob Novak) excessively large. So then came Round Two. This is from my Daily Telegraph/Chicago Sun-Times column of October 13th 2000:
The second presidential debate is proving a difficult one for the experts:
"Well, Cokie, Bush may have overplayed his hand. By being in command of the facts, talking in coherent sentences and winning the debate, he risks reminding voters of what they dislike about Al Gore."
"That's right, George. Conversely, if Gore can build on this week's performance by appearing even more tentative, uncomfortable and anxious for the debate to end, he may tap into that group of key swing voters who were attracted to Bush when he was a bozo."
"That's right, Dan. By flaunting his knowledge of 'East Timor' and 'Viktor Chernomyrdin' and by using phrases like 'the National Restaurant Association's policy of cross-jurisdictional pooling,' Bush may have alienated his base of morons."
"That's right, Eleanor. Because we know that on the issues Gore is more in tune with the electorate. By giving clear, robust answers supporting capital punishment and opposing gay marriage, Bush only emphasizes how hopelessly split the Republicans are on these issues. Gore, on the other hand, said that education would be his 'No. 1 priority,' as would campaign-finance reform and Medicare. By having so many No. 1 priorities and no No. 2 or No. 3 priorities, he's much closer to where the electorate is, priority-wise."
"That's right, Sam. All the polls showed that in the first debate Gore used too many big numbers, so, by using no number bigger than one, he effectively neutralized the 'fuzzy math' issue."
"That's right, Wolf. And by backpedaling on his earlier support for government health care, high energy taxes and tough gun control, he demonstrated yet again how good he is at backpedaling. A volatile electorate swinging back and forth between philosophically incompatible positions is likely to respond positively to a candidate who's equally erratic."
"That's right, Gloria. Bush, meanwhile, now has a serious character problem. By abandoning his decision to campaign as a dimwit and re-launching himself as a tough, confident, informed candidate, he runs the danger of seeming insecure and uncertain as to who he really is. That won't play well with a public likely to react cynically to a candidate who re-launches himself with a new image every week."
"That's right, Bob. And, by making us tie ourselves in knots all the time, Bush consistently makes our headaches worse, which only reminds us that the intern isn't back from Winnipeg with the cheap ibuprofen yet."
This election always has been about one thing, and it was thoughtfully touched on by Kriss Soterion, the former Miss New Hampshire and owner-operator of Kriss Cosmetics & the Studio of Holistic Beauty in Manchester, New Hampshire. Kriss, you may recall, was invited to do the Vice-President's makeup for the first Gore/Bush game in Boston. Before the debate, the local papers were running endless profiles of the hometown gal on the eve of her big break. After the debate, she entered the witness protection program. The pancake she smeared on Gore's cheeks, on top of his overly worked-out, 23-inch neck, on top of his lumpy suit, combined to make him look like Herman Munster doing a bad Ronald Reagan impression. Many of us Granite Staters, vaguely aware that a local business had been accorded the honor of showing Al off at his best, assumed the contract had gone to the embalming department of the Lambert Funeral Home on Elm Street.
Poor old Kriss would like to make up for her makeup, but she fears she'll never get another chance, and now seems to be going through some existential crisis, riddled with self-doubt and questioning her calling. She told The New Hampshire Sunday News that her catastrophic touch-up of Al has caused her to "think deeply" about "the psychology of makeup."
"It just makes me think about the whole thing, about wearing masks," she said. "It's kind of a fascinating subject, to analyze why we hide behind it in the first place."
This is not a subject the Vice-President wants to discuss at this stage in the election cycle.
Still, Kriss has a point. For the second presidential face-off, Al was appearing without his face on - not just the foundation and rouge, but in a broader sense: The mouth wasn't merely in non-sighing mode, it was zipped up and hung slack; the eyes seemed dead. The only remnants of last week's Gore were the eyebrows (NB, Kriss: nice pencil liner) imperiously arched with the amused contempt of an overthrown king sitting through his own show trial. On Wednesday night Al had the look of a man who'd run out of masks. After the expansive array of dazzling new Gores of the last year, the Vice-President apparently opened his closet and found that his housekeeper had sent all his identities to the cleaners.
Dubya, for his part, connected the dots between personal character and public policy in a subtle but devastating way. When he spoke of an America that was "humble, but strong" as opposed to one that was "arrogant" and thought it could be "all things to all people," he wasn't really talking about the nation per se so much as its embodiment in the commander-in-chief. Al's sneering disdain for Dubya in the first debate isn't just personal distaste but emblematic of his arrogance in government: We'll give you tax credits - but only if you live your life the way we say, from cradle to grave, from pre-school child care to seniors' health plans. And just because we're running your lives doesn't mean we won't be running the rest of the world, too.
Al made the astonishing assertion - perhaps as a result of watching NBC's Olympics coverage - that the rest of the world wants to be "more like America." Many people around the planet admire the United States, but are proudly Irish, Australian, Kazakh or Nepalese, and wish to build their countries their way. When Dubya talked about a humble but strong America, he sounded as if he was talking about himself. When Al talked about a uniquely powerful America imposing its values on everyone else, he was talking about himself, too.
At one point, Dubya alluded to "the Ugly American" - an old stereotype but one which, over on the other side of the split screen, seemed to have found its most alarming apotheosis. Meanwhile, Dubya's view of the media establishment as "major-league assholes" is pretty sound. All the experts agreed Gore won the first debate, while Bush had at best survived. So when, in the ensuing days, the polls showed Dubya in the lead, the Gore team's brilliant response was to mock the guy's syntax and claim he was too bumbling to be President.
Who are the real dummies here? If politics is an expectations game, the last thing Gore needed to do was lower the public's expectations of Dubya even more. The baffled media now speculate that Bush deliberately threw the first debate to lower expectations for the second. The truth may be that he's just the first candidate of the 21st century indifferent to spin and image manipulation. But that's ridiculous, right?
After the first debate, The Chicago Sun-Times' Bob Novak declared that Gore looked "too big." Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank mocked the observation. "I do not think he can shrink between now and the next debate," he said. "His size will probably remain a constant. Crouching maybe would be about it."
But on Wednesday something happened. Gore did shrink, and shrivel - before our very eyes.
~I'm happy to say the above-mentioned Kriss recovered from her paroxysms of self-doubt, and is still New Hampshire's makeup artist to the stars. She's now Kriss Blevens, and, if you ever run for president, come primary season you'll be spending a lot of time in her tender care - as have Bush, Kerry, Cheney, Edwards, McCain, Obama, Palin, Clinton, Trump, Pence, Biden and many others. Some time after the column came out, in the makeup room at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, Kriss explained to me that Al had arrived for the debate badly sunburned and she had had to do the best she could. The global warming finally caught up with him.
The above is adapted from Mark Steyn from Head to Toe, personally autographed copies of which are exclusively available at the SteynOnline bookstore - and, if you're a Mark Steyn Club member, don't forget to enter your promotional code at checkout for special member pricing.
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