Big Time

Dick Cheney won. Big time.

But we’ll get to that in a moment.

The more important thing to note at the top is that Americans won last night, and democracy won, because the Cheney-Lieberman debate was an authentic public service. First, it was inspiring. For the first time in years millions of Americans saw two political men who were in bearing, seriousness, sophistication and thoughtfulness like the public servants of old, or rather the public servants you respected when you were a kid (or maybe I mean the public servants you imagined populated Washington when you were a teenager reading Allen Drury novels).

They were knowledgeable, interesting; their comments, answers and assertions came with context. That is, they didn’t just blurt a ragged thought that some aide dreamed up and then spend 38 seconds trying to wrestle the blurt into a coherent and meaningful assertion. They actually said coherent and meaningful things. Neither tried to be clever or swift—well, Mr. Lieberman a few times, and we’ll get to that too—and yet they were each consistently interesting. At least once, on the issue of gay rights, each candidate actually thought aloud about how he was thinking about the issue—what went into his reasoning, what the history of his thinking had been, where he was now and where he felt the issue fit into overall themes of justice and what might be called Americanism.

If you were listening, you learned. That is, a few issues probably made more sense to you, and so the arguments over those issues, over which fellow stands where and why, made more sense. Or perhaps I should say: Normally when I listen to political debates I get a little lost, wondering at some point what the phrase “$1.3 trillion shortfall” means within the argument, or what “the tax cut targeting initiative” connects to. But with Mr. Cheney’s answers, and often with Mr. Lieberman’s, a common-sense history course in common language was provided.

More than that, both candidates seemed free of the mind-freezing tension that makes thoughts lurch and then stop abruptly, like a thief who just heard something. And so a question on the Mideast, in Cheney’s handling, became a meditation on Israeli politics, on the death of Yitzhak Rabin, on the danger of Iraq and Saddam Hussein, on the meaning of the Clinton administration’s failure to go forward with and insist upon weapons inspections. It was quite a wonderful answer because it made you remember what is at stake in that part of the world.

So: I was inspired, and feel most grateful to Mr. Cheney and Mr. Lieberman for making a constructive contribution to our great democracy. I may change my mind about this by tomorrow, but right now I think it was the best presidential-level debate of my lifetime.

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Why do I think Mr. Cheney won? Because he was consistently the more compelling because the more ingenuous figure. Because he was a surprise. I knew and know he is a serious and thoughtful man, but I didn’t know he had quite the calm, impressive intellect, high concentration, inherent modesty and warm dignity that he displayed. And he didn’t display it; it was just there. I didn’t know he had such a common and accessible touch as a communicator.

Mr. Lieberman was good too, but I think he was outclassed. And by the end I think he knew it. Apparently the Gore people did too: when I got home I read a wire story saying Gore’s people got their spinners into the spin room a full seven minutes before the debate ended. You don’t leave the room with the TV set in it that quickly when you’re having a good time watching your guy win.

I’ll give you an example of how Mr. Lieberman was a little too cute sometimes, and got a little sneaky, and if it had been a cute and sneaky debate it would have been OK but it was an elevated debate, and sneaky didn’t play. It was the moment when Mr. Lieberman, who I’m sure had been planning the line for days, pleasantly smiled at Mr. Cheney and told him the economy must be pretty good. “I’m pleased to see, Dick, from the newspapers, that you’re better off than you were eight years ago.”

A nice shot. Mr. Cheney laughs and looks at him and says, “ I can tell you, Joe, that the government had absolutely nothing to do with it.” Good laughter—Mr. Cheney wins the point.

But Mr. Lieberman doesn’t back off. “I can see my wife,” he says slyly, “and I think she’s thinking, ‘Gee, I wish he would go out into the private sector.’ ”

And Mr. Cheney shoots back, “ I’m going to try to help you do that, Joe.”

What was great about it was not that Mr. Cheney won the exchange, and without the help of a line in his pocket. What was great was that Mr. Lieberman thought he was going to have his bash-the-rich Mario Cuomo moment. Mr. Cuomo had a great moment in 1982 when he was debating an impressive Republican challenger named Lewis Lehrman. Mr. Lehrman was a rich man. So in the middle of the debate, Cuomo looked over and said, “Nice watch, Lew.” Mr. Lehrman cringed: caught having gold on your wrist!

It was one of those neat, sneaky, Democratic class-bash moments. And Mr. Lieberman thought he’d have his. But he didn’t. Because Mr. Cheney wasn’t some patsy Republican in a defensive crouch at being wealthy. He was like a Republican who supports conservative policies because they’ll give you a chance to get rich, too.

Mr. Lieberman also tried a bit of demagoguery that Al Gore gets away with, but Mr. Cheney nailed Mr. Lieberman on it. When Mr. Cheney argued that U.S. military spending and readiness have gone down the past seven years, Mr. Lieberman tried to pretend that Mr. Cheney’s criticism of Clinton-Gore stewardship was a criticism of American sailors and soldiers. Mr. Cheney didn’t let him get away with it, corrected him, and repeated his criticisms of Clinton-Gore. Mr. Lieberman, this time, wisely backed off. (I was watching one of those whacked-out response-line things on a monitor at MSNBC; you should have seen Mr. Cheney’s lines head skyward. It is very unusual, when Republicans talk about defense, to see the lines go up.)

Mr. Lieberman also tried to manipulate, and was altogether too cute, when Mr. Cheney spoke of Iraq and the danger it poses as an unimpeded maker of weapons of mass destruction. It was the only time Mr. Lieberman got sniffy: such dire national security questions have no place in a campaign, he said. (Really? Gee, those weapons might kill us. I think we maybe have the right to discuss it.) It was patently an attempt to claim the high ground while avoiding discussion of an administration failure.

Mr. Cheney did not cede the microphone; he is a vocal Republican. He didn’t hog it like Mr. Gore did the other night, but he clearly enjoyed saying his piece. He also, and to my surprise—he has had a life in government—doesn’t speak governmentese. He’d say, simply and clearly, that the policies he stood for were aimed at giving people as much control over their own lives as possible. He’d say of the Gore-Lieberman tax plan that you need an accountant to understand it and that “ They like tax credits. We like tax reform and tax cuts.”

Mr. Lieberman, on the other hand, proved himself fluent in governmentese: “the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office,” “by our calculation they are $1.1 trillion in debt,” even “ a very exciting tax-credit program.”

*   *   *

As for how they looked, which is not important but let’s do it anyway, they both looked just fine. They looked like normal humans having a conversation at a desk. Whoever said Joe Lieberman has a face like a melted clown was kind of right, but I prefer the observation of a friend who is not a Republican that Mr. Lieberman looks like Henry Gibson, of “Laugh-In” and “Nashville” fame, and like Harpo Marx without the horn.

I, being rude and seeking to show bipartisanship in my horribleness, noted this evening on MSNBC that Dick Cheney looks like a round lump of beige. This is not only uncalled for but, since both men really acquitted themselves so well, and in the acquitting gave our country an hour and a half of dignity, good nature, good sense and class, and since those things don’t come much from politics anymore, no one should make cheap jokes about them, and I think all writers and talkers should not make poke fun at either of them for the rest of the campaign, to show our appreciation and respect.

But really what was most inspiring about the debate, and about the two men in it, was a kind of civic sweetness, a high-mindedness with which they spoke sympathetically of so many issues that are painful for various ones of us, from racial profiling to abortion to gay rights. Both men spoke with what seemed an honest and deep engagement, not huffing and puffing but, again, thinking aloud. High-minded, I’d even say right-minded, thinking aloud. This was a good example for our children.

Boy these guys made me feel better.

And boy Dick Cheney was a revelation.

*   *   *

Early spin from the liberal media is going to be, “Cheney was pretty good, and so of course was Lieberman. But you know Chris/Tom/Dan/Brian, the very fact of Cheney’s excellence will no doubt be seen as an implicit criticism of Bush. Why, after all, isn’t he so impressive? I think Cheney’s triumph will work against Bush.” They’re already saying this. In the conservative media (the magazines, columnists, this page) they will call it “Cheney’s Night” and ponder why men like him have to be picked for veep and don’t get elected president.

I also see a coming debate, a big one, in conservative circles, over whether the Bush campaign should, as the Democratic strategist Pat Caddell and others, including me, have urged, do a big and serious speech about the meaning of the trampling of law and lowering of dignity in the past eight years. Mr. Caddell argues—I paraphrase—that in a time of peace and plenty the challengers must clearly define what the problem is, how it threatens our well being, and what the solution is (throw the bums out). I see a lot of sense in this. But there are those who warn, prudently, that the media will kill the Republicans if they go down that road—”negative,” etc. (Listen to Rush Limbaugh tomorrow, he in a sense started the debate with an interview Thursday on MSNBC.)

*   *   *

A clarification of how I see my role seems in order after the reaction I got in many quarters to my criticism of George W. Bush’s performance in Tuesday’s debate. Let me tell you how I see it. Everyone who cares to know my political sympathies knows them, because I don’t hide them. I declare them. (I wish everyone would.) But my job isn’t spin; my job is to tell you the truth as I see it. I don’t think spin is interesting. I think the truth is always interesting, and when you’re lucky enough to see it accurately and explain it clearly—actually I don’t think it’s luck, I think of it the way Walker Percy thought of it; he wrote once that when he wrote anything good he knew where it came from, he knew who had sneaked into him “like a thief with good tools”—you’re doing good. I’m for Mr. Bush. But I think Mr. Bush tanked in his debate. I’m for Cheney, too. I think he just triumphed.

I hope Mr. Bush does well next time, but if I think he doesn’t I’m going to say it. That’s my job—and my inclination. Sorry.