The Off-Putting vs. The Unconvincing

“He won the walk.” The speaker was a network producer just after Al Gore walked on stage, and she was right.

The moment seemed emblematic of the evening. Both candidates strode out looking like big attractive men in big attractive suits, and shook hands, and Mr. Gore seemed to whisper something to George W. Bush, who seemed to nod agreement; then Mr. Gore, still clasping Mr. Bush’s hand, subtly pushed him back half a step. Like a dominant personality. Like an unattractive dominant personality. Like a man who read Michael Korda’s “Power!” and decided to put his desk up on a little three-inch platform so he’d always be looking down at others sitting in the office. Mr. Gore was trying to intimidate physically, which is what Bill Clinton did to Bob Dole in the debates of 1996.

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Normally it takes time for the cliché about a debate, the Official Agreed Upon Version, to emerge. No one announced the day after the first Kennedy-Nixon debate that Kennedy won, and that the reason was that Nixon was pasty and Kennedy ruddy. It takes time for people to fit the impressions of an event into the outcome of the story. In the end Kennedy won the election, ergo he must have won the first debate, ergo he won that debate because he . . . wore makeup.

The elements of the common wisdom are coming together on Bush-Gore I. It was a night of sighs and sniffs, and didn’t so much offer a new vision of each candidate as reinforce pre-existing perceptions. If you went in thinking Mr. Bush truly limited, he had a very good night. I didn’t go in thinking Mr. Bush truly limited.

Mr. Gore dominated the evening lopsidedly, and from the git-go. He was more fluid in the language of governance, more fluid in language, period. He was more aggressive, more focused and game; he had high concentration, and maintained his impressive ability to summon fact and statistic from the air and insert them in a series of sentences that had a subject, predicate and verb and that together made a coherent paragraph.

Mr. Bush seemed to me low-energy, less focused, a man of more ragged thoughts and arguments. He sniffled. He seemed to have a cold. He didn’t seem to like being there. Mr. Bush sometimes seems to like most of leadership and not much of politics, and this was such a night.

Jim Lehrer seemed to cede control to Mr. Gore, who was only too happy to take it. He bored in. His first statement was clear and clean. “If I’m entrusted with the presidency, here are the choices that I will make. I’ll balance the budget every year. I will pay down the national debt. I will put Medicare and Social Security in a lock box and protect it. And I will cut taxes for middle class families.”

From the first, he was presenting himself as a prudent steward whose primary concerns are essentially conservative—tax cuts, balanced budgets, no wild spending. Mr. Bush, in response, was reactive.

Mr. Gore issued charges and challenges that were not often fully answered, and buried Mr. Bush’s sallies in a steadily falling snow of factoids and counter-assertions.

So Mr. Gore dominated. But did he “win”? This is where the debate becomes complicated, in a way that no presidential debate has ever been. If by winning we mean “Which candidate seemed to be the one a majority of Americans would be comfortable having as president?” then not only acumen and command but personality and character come into the equation.

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Al Gore was Al Gore. And George Bush was George Bush. Mr. Gore didn’t seem like a good man, and Mr. Bush didn’t seem like a weighty one. Everyone knows Mr. Gore is a gifted debater, but he allowed his mastery to work against him. He allowed confidence to become aggression, his sense that he has a superior grasp of issues to become a manner that was condescending, and creepy.

The impatient, disrespectful sighs into the mike as Mr. Bush spoke. The laughing, head shaking dismissals that seemed not natural but forced. Mr. Gore revealed himself to be quite an actor—but the kind who makes you think of words like phony, not words like gifted, which is how you think when you see Mr. Clinton act.

Mr. Gore so over-acted the role of Superior Person in Control of Events that he made me think of Snidely Whiplash, the railroad lawyer who twirls his mustache as he ties the damsel to the tracks. He seemed almost comically crafty. I remembered what was said in 1988 of George Bush the Elder: That he reminded women of their first husband, a putdown meant to suggest he was bumbling. But Mr. Gore may well have reminded women of their first husband during the divorce trial, rolling his eyes and snorting as she testified to his abuse. As it is expected that more women were watching than men, I can’t imagine this did him any good.

Mr. Gore always wanted to have the last word, and he mostly got it. I suspect he spoke at least twice as much as Mr. Bush, which we’ll find out when the word count is tallied. But when Mr. Gore talks a lot he opens himself to scrutiny, and increases the chance that some of his assertions will later be found not to be truthful.

He began with an assertion that could easily be found untrue. When asked what he’d meant by questioning whether Mr. Bush has the experience to be president, Mr. Gore denied making the charge. Mr. Lehrer referred to the charge as appearing in the New York Times. Mr. Gore responded that he’d questioned Mr. Bush’s proposals. In fact, the Times reported on April 13 that Mr. Gore had questioned Mr. Bush’s experience.

This seems small but isn’t; a sense that he’s a trimmer undercuts him. When he spoke of the girl who is forced to stand in her overcrowded classroom, I thought, and suspect many did: a) that’s terrible, and b) I wonder if it is true. (The principal now says the classroom was crowded because they were unpacking $100,000 in new equipment.) When your every statement is potentially undercut by your reputation as fabulist, you are never convincing.

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Mr. Bush seems incapable of acting or making up stories. He is genuinely himself, not phony or showy. But throughout the evening he seemed tentative, lacking in Mr. Gore’s command and subtlety. In repose, when listening, when he thinks the camera is not on him, he gets a close-eyed, crooked-mouthed look; he looks perplexed.

More important, he doesn’t unspool arguments. He blurts out fragments of assertion; his sentences don’t hold, his thoughts don’t follow through. He didn’t make a case against Mr. Gore’s lurch back to the left, to pre-DLC liberalism; he didn’t make the case for modern conservatism, for his brand of compassionate conservatism. He reacted, sometimes effectively and sometimes not.

If Mr. Gore hadn’t seemed so off-putting, he might have put Mr. Bush in real trouble. But Mr. Gore was off-putting. And so both go on to live another day. In the next debate Mr. Bush would seem at an advantage. The format is more congenial to him—sitting at a table, talking. And while it will be difficult for Mr. Gore to present himself as a more attractive personality, it won’t be so hard for Mr. Bush to become a more focused debater.

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And so the election continues with its own particular character. It is the most mysterious of recent years; no one seems to know how it will turn out. Not to be pretentious, but this election seems marked by an element in the work of the great Japanese movie director, Akira Kurosawa. It was said of his films that they are informed by a special and particular tension: that in them, always, the villain has arrived while the hero is evolving.