The Big Debate

Hello, Governor. Big weekend ahead. You’re practicing for the debates. Here’s an idea right off the top. You’re practicing, they say, with Judd Gregg. He’s playing Gore. That’s okay, but no one can really play Gore because Gore is so . . . changeable is a nice word. So go ahead with Sen. Gregg, but somewhere along the way just sit with your staff for a few hours and let them tear you apart with the toughest, meanest attacks they can muster. And when a sarcastic aside takes you aback, demand to know what the suggested response should be. (Let them squirm for once.) Rick Lazio didn’t debate one on one before he met up with Hillary, for rehearsal he just got pounded by his staff. It’s a good thing to do, because as good as Gore is, he won’t be able to pound you as hard as a staff eager to show We’re Only Hurting You to Help You. It’ll make Gore seem like a softy Tuesday night.

Your mettle is about to be measured. Do you have the strength to assert persuasively, the wit to defend effectively, can you launch an offensive, make a case, take a punch?

This year, as you well know, the debates are as important as they were in 1960, and ‘76, and ‘80, which is to say they’re more important than usual because the race is so close. And whatever happens in them—your gaffe if you make it, your great line if you say it—will be played over and over more than ever in the million-network universe. So whatever drama happens Tuesday night will enter the national consciousness, and stay there.

It’s the first debate, and most everyone who cares will be watching, which according to my estimation is exactly half the country.

If you win Tuesday you won’t necessarily win the election, but you’ll come that much closer. If it’s a draw, pretty much the same thing—you get points for a draw because everyone knows Gore is a better debater. If you flop big-time Tuesday—well, it’s getting late in the game, and you might never recover.

So: high stakes.

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What do you have to do on Tuesday night? You have to demonstrate once again on national television what you show on the stump: that you have the heft and height to be president, that you’re big enough for the job, that you’re a serious man familiar with the facts of government and governance. This is the task Ronald Reagan faced in ‘80: They may call me a low-IQ nuclear cowboy, but I’m a big, calm, intelligent man with the right ideas that grow from the right philosophy. This incumbent, Mr. Carter, is . . . so unfortunately small. But Reagan of course had hard times to help him, and you don’t.

Gore doesn’t have to show he’s bright enough; everyone thinks he’s bright. If you’ve read “Earth in the Balance” you may well think he’s weird, lacking in common sense and perspective, but not dumb. What Gore has to show is that he is not . . . creepy. There’s a big and growing creepiness quotient with him now. The lying thing, the robot thing, the weird-changes-of-speaking-style thing (preacher Al, Oprah Al, Alpha Al), the Buddhist temple thing, the excoriating-Hollywood-Monday-and-sucking-up-to-Hollywood-Tuesday thing, the Clinton-is-one-of-our-greatest-presidents thing.

Gore has to somehow demonstrate to us that he’s a good and normal man at the same time that he’s attacking his opponent. That’s hard.

So: advantage Bush.

Except that Gore is a better debater than you, a really wily coyote.

So: advantage Gore.

Gore is famously . . . let’s call it malleable. He can be what he thinks he has to be. He might be wise sensitive Al tonight, and seem ingenuous and likable, a man who’s sad to point out your flaws but feels forced to because we’re talking here about the leadership of a planet. That might be a pretty good tack to take, and might throw you off your game.

But again, people do what they know how to do. Gore knows how to fight and aggress. He knows how to eat his lunch off Ross Perot’s head. He knows how to flummox Bill Bradley. He’ll probably try to reveal you as a know-nothing bumpkin way out of his league, a guy who lacks command, who has a rÈsumÈ lighter than air.

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How will you handle it? Like a Texan. You’ll be unfazed. You’ll laugh and point out that a lifetime immersed in Washington ways is about the worst preparation possible for the kind of president we need now. Outside blood. New ideas, new ways, not the reactionary politics of yesterday.

Normally I worry about your strange humility. No humble man runs for president, only men who think they should be among the most powerful humans in the world. And yet you have often shown a certain diffidence, a tentativeness in debates in the past, and in interviews with the press.

But one senses that is over, or at least very much ending. You spent a day with Sen. Slade Gorton in Washington state this week, and he says he’s never seen you so confident, so happy. And you certainly showed ease and high comfort in your own skin on “Larry King Live” Tuesday night. And your wife has the calm of a school librarian who knows the school bond issue’s going to pass. It’s not bland, it’s kind of a creamy confidence. No, it’s serenity! What an odd thing to see in a spouse in the midst of a presidential campaign. I think I know what she’s thinking: If God wants this to happen it will happen, and to our betterment; if he does not allow it to happen it won’t happen, and to our betterment. Why, then, worry? Except about all the high-cholesterol bologna sandwiches George keeps eating on the plane.

Anyway, those who know you aren’t worried about your confidence. They’re not worried about your ability to fight Tuesday night, either. This is good.

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Okay, the big thing I want to say. Do not—not for one second, for one sentence, for one pause—let Al Gore claim and take the moral high ground. He’ll go for it right away. He’s protecting seniors and you don’t care, he’s protecting our schools and you’re their enemy. Well, you know different, don’t you. Go straight for him on the justice issues. How can he stand there and talk about his compassion when there are more uninsured kids in America now than the day he walked into the White House? How can he claim to care when his education policies consign poor children to dead schools? How can he claim to care about the young when his reactionary Social Security plan allows them no freedom to create a secure future? How can he claim to care when his every move is dictated by interest groups who look out for themselves and never for America? How can he claim to care when he won’t even take steps to see that America—and the world—are made safer from nuclear missile attack? Does he not understand that we will someday need it?

Don’t be afraid of that last one. It is the great issue of our time.

You go at Gore with moral confidence, with the conviction you display in private but only fleetingly in public. Don’t you go into the Republican crouch when he talks about the poor, the old. You get your facts out there chapter and verse. Nail him on his cynical (and risky!) scheme to keep the taxpayers’ money to buy off his base instead of giving the people back their hard earned overpayment. You talk about how a family that’s bringing in $75,000 a year with two kids is hit by taxes from every level of government, how the dry-cleaner owner is hit by the same. Tell Gore: “You care about everyone but the people.”

Don’t wait for him to go at you and then swing back. Come out and assert, set the pace, let him react to you. Put him on the defensive.

Don’t be afraid to talk about the character of the administration he represents and is part of and will continue. Even David Broder is urging you forward. Speak the truth about the long trail of eight years of cynicism and humiliation and grave damage to the rule of law.

Another thing. Everyone knows what Gore’s philosophy comes down to: Give everybody everything he wants in terms of money, which is power. Keep the coalition glued together with cash. They’re cynical, I’m cynical, turn the taps on high. Teachers? Pay hike! Schools? More money! Oldies? Subsidized prescription drugs! Social agenda? Maximum leftism to my lefties! Youngies? Whatta ya want, tight jeans? I got tight jeans! Whatever you want I’ll give you!

When giving people things is your “philosophy” you don’t need a philosophy. You’re the Good Humor man; here’s the ice cream. But conservatives have to have a philosophy. Because they have to explain why they’re not giving out the ice cream, why they’re not promising easy money and cheap grace. Or rather, they have to explain why their brand of “ice cream” is real and rich, that faith-based social policy is Häagen-Dazs, that a way to protect our country from missile attack and terrorism is Häagen-Dazs, that Gore’s ice cream is cheap, filled with chemicals and pumped with air.

What’s your philosophy? Do people understand it to be, Al gives too much? Ach—low budget liberalism, that won’t do it. Your philosophy is something else. Tell us. Put it in three sentences, or four. Great things can be put in three sentences or four. Lincoln did it; your hero Churchill did it; Reagan did it, and God knows your favorite philosopher, Jesus, did it every day.

Boil it down. This is what Bush believes. This is Bush’s philosophy. Write it down, internalize it, say it.

Keep it simple. Simple sentences are good sentences because they can be absorbed with ease by normal humans. And because we all know everything that’s true can be expressed in a simple way. “It is better to give than to receive.” “The meek shall inherit the earth.”

Your syntax collapses when you start in with clauses and subclauses. Don’t do that. Straight and simple as a well-thrown ball.

Do you need an opening statement? Short and sweet. Frame what the election is about. A closing statement? Short and sweet again, and direct and simple. This is what it’s about, this is what I believe, this is why you don’t want to go down his road, this is why you want to go down mine. “Come walk with me.”

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Some small things.

Governor, when you get off a good line you have a way of looking at the audience as if to say, Isn’t that funny? Join me in laughter! If you can stop that, stop it. Say what you have to say, and when you get off a good line don’t look to the audience or Jim Lehrer for a response, just do whatever is natural—laugh, pause, whatever—and then continue your thought.

Gore likes to interrupt. It’s how he destabilized Bradley in debate and made him look like a tall tree about to crash into the soft green forest. He’ll do it with you, hoping to get you mad or confused or lose momentum. Realize the game and have your concentration high. Say what you have to say to the American people—that is, to the camera—and not to him.

An odd stylistic change. Liberals now think they have to be very tough, and their form of toughness includes sarcasm and balls-of-the-feet aggression. Conservatives now think they have to be Love Republicans, sweet and kindly. It used to be the other way around. Anyway, Gore will be tough in part because his supporters and aides want him to be, they’re stoking him. When he goes over the line, be ready to point it out. Remember he doesn’t know how to be sweet, but you know how to be tough.

Everyone’s sending you lines. Everyone’s sending him lines. The brightest, most withering line writers in the Democratic Party are sending them in from Hollywood and Manhattan and big cities and universities. They’re probably in a big book in Gore’s room on the plane. He’s underscoring the ones he likes in yellow marker right now. His secretary is about to put them on cards so he can review them on Monday.

You might need counterlines more than you need lines. Gore’s people have probably been culling Great Lines from Debates Past. Gore will probably use on you what Mondale used to good effect on Reagan: “It’s not what you don’t know that disturbs me, it’s what you know that isn’t true!” Why would Gore use old lines? For the same reason he uses, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” Reagan’s signature line from the ‘84 campaign. Because he won’t get tagged, that’s why. Because we live in the Age of No Memory. Because we’re bombarded by images and sounds and keep hitting delete, because there’s just so much the human brain can hold on to. Because children aren’t taught history anymore. Because average Americans aren’t political columnists, and have more important things to remember than what Mondale said to Reagan. Because a lot of voters were five or seven or 10 when Mondale said it, and don’t remember.

Think about responses on Gore’s coming lines about (a) how uninformed you are, (b) how you have ties to dread Big Oil, (c) how you stand for and with the powerful at the expense of the powerless.

You need the comeback. And comebacks might rather undo him. Because no one ever has a comeback for Al Gore, have you noticed? He’s not used to someone really slamming the ball back.

Speaking of which, something Gore has to watch out for is an air of arrogance. He is seen as arrogant by present and former aides, he always knows best, has the better insight, the better idea. He’s got some conceit. It shows sometimes, like when he’s trying to pulverize someone in debate. In the past it’s sometimes worked for him. But in national debate in an even-Steven race I think it will. . . be unconsciously absorbed by some viewers, and give them a bad sense of him. When you think he’s being pompous and arrogant just sit back and watch. And then maybe zing him. “Meanwhile, back on planet Earth . . .”

You usually wear gray suits and a light shirt and a nice tie. To me this is good, as I don’t think running for president is a casual Friday event. But I’m afraid this is an old-fashioned view. At any rate, the suits you normally wear are kind of schlumpy, nondescript. Most American men wear that suit. You look like a New Jersey businessman grabbing the keys off the bureau in the morning and kissing his wife goodbye and saying “Didja call the Salvettis about Friday night? Didja ask about the pool when the guy came?”

You look like the nice man in the didja moment.

But debates as I say are formal, and it shows respect to get dressed up. How about a nice dark blue suit, pinstriped or plain. A nice mall suit from an expensive, upscale shop. Crisp bright white dress shirt. Bright tie. I know red is a cliché, but it’s a nice cliché. A deep red silk with stripes or patterns. You’re doing a reverse Regis. We’re all tired of same-colored tie/same-colored shirt. Go old-fashioned and masculine so when you walk in they can smell the after shave.

I hope you got a haircut last week. Don’t get one the day before the debate. Jimmy Carter got a haircut the day before the debates in ‘76 or ‘80 and I became so distracted by the pale gap between the shorn hair and the tanned campaign-face that I couldn’t quite concentrate on what he said, and came awake only for things like “I asked my daughter, Amy, what was the great problem we face today and she told me nuclear proliferation.”: Anyway, if you haven’t already gotten the cut, don’t bother; it can be a little long.

Don’t let them slather too much makeup on you; have your good campaign color and a little powder to take off the shine. By the way, if you start to sweat under the lights, as a normal person would, don’t be afraid to wipe it off. Try to do it when you know the camera’s on Gore but whatever, just wipe it. It’s distracting when you see a sweating candidate not brush off the rivulet that’s working it’s way down his cheek.

A final thing. I remember the good old days of bombastic Bushkin, the irrepressible candidate. You’re still that guy on the plane and the stump but not so much in TV interviews. Which is probably good. Now you’re grounded and sensitive and sober. The closer you get to the presidency the soberer you get. But the thing that made you bombastic Bushkin—the happiness—bring that Tuesday night. Joy is a good thing to see. Before you go on, sit down and breathe in and say a prayer—a born again Christian who forgets to pray is an unassisted warrior—and remember how much you love life.

Remember that it isn’t about you. If you’re serious about all this, and you are, you know that if you win you are going to help America, and if he wins he is going to hurt it. If you know this you know you’re on a mission and you’re a patriot and this is about America, not you. You’re just the guy fate put in the help-America position. Let fate, or as you see it, God, use you. When you know you’re being used by the Divine User you’ve got the only mo that never stops. People with the mo know joy, because that’s what mo is. Take it to the podium and fill the stage with it.

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Since I’m enjoying myself bloviating with unneeded advice for you, I’ll give some unasked-for advice to my countrymen.

Please my beloved friends, remember this: Who you think won, won. The guy who impressed you was the impressive guy. As soon as the debate ends the networks will go into 45 seconds of anchor summation followed by a live standup report from the spin room, where, as you well know, the top aides of each candidate will insist he won no matter what:

“The moment when the vice president took out the gun and took wild shots at the audience strikingly demonstrated to the American people that he’s not at all programmed.”

“When the governor rolled his eyes and made fart sounds, he was connecting to the American people in the language they speak, unlike the vice president, who’s incapable of authenticity.”

“But the vice president invented flatulence!”

Then the anchors will throw it to some guy who’ll say his focus group liked this guy or that. Then come the talking heads. I’ll be one. But my opinion, as you well know, is worth no more than yours. It’s rather less important, as you may truly have been an undecided who decided how to vote on the basis of the debate. Which means you made news. You are news.

Don’t let us sway you.

Who you think won, won.