The third presidential debate was a public good, both informative and, once again, revealing of both presidential candidates. It seems to me that all three debates, now that they’re history, have been a paradoxical triumph: They were at times rote, stilted and even cringe-making, especially when Al Gore would take over and show his manly dominance, and Jim Lehrer would seem to shy away—”Don’t hit me!” And yet taken as a whole, all three debates had real power, made a real impact—so much so that I suspect when we look back on the election of 2000 the reigning cliché will be: It was settled in the debates.
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All three made clear Mr. Gore’s central problems, one being that while it is certainly possible to respect his talents it is very hard for normal humans to like him.
And this is a very particular problem for him. After the third debate one of the whacked-out focus groups of supposedly undecided voters (really, has it not occurred to all in our great country that if focus-group undecideds actually decide then they won’t get to be on television anymore, and won’t be able to chat live with Tom, Dan and Brian?) threw out words to the moderator that described Mr. Gore. Among the words were “aggressive” “impolite” and “lacking in respect.”
Mr. Gore’s lack of courtesy is an old story of course, but it occurred to me as the focus group chattered that to a unique degree Mr. Gore’s affect—his demeanor and way of presenting himself—undercuts and puts the lie to the meaning of his whole campaign. Mr. Gore in his very Gorey-ness steps on and obliterates his own message. His lack of good nature becomes a lack of good faith.
The message of his campaign is: I will be just. But he can’t manage to be fair to George W. Bush. His message is: I will care about the weak. But then he smacks the easygoing and accommodating Mr. Bush on the head. His message is: I will be sensitive and kind. And then he attempts to menace and intimidate Mr. Bush by creeping up behind him and, as we say in New York, invading his space. Mr. Gore’s message is: I care for the little guy and not the powerful, and then in his power suit with the five foot shoulders he turns and looks with derision at the little guy Mr. Bush.
Voters absorb these things, and what they absorb coalesces into impression and, in time, hardens into opinion: “If this guy can’t manage to be courteous and good-natured to the courteous and good-natured man on the stool, why would he be good-natured and courteous to us?”
When people say of Mr. Gore that they don’t trust him and are asked to come up with why, they say things like, “He’s kind of a liar.” But they often don’t necessarily remember specific lies. What they’re remembering, I think, is the difference between what Mr. Gore says and how Mr. Gore acts. That’s the lie, the real one that haunts him.
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Mr. Bush is no longer diffident, and no longer seems taken aback by Mr. Gore. In the cutaway shots, as he watched Mr. Gore Tuesday night, he wore a smile that seemed bemused and partly perplexed, like a younger actor watching an old-style actor eat the furniture and overact.
But the key moment, to me, was when Mr. Gore, who was supposed to be perched on his little stool, decided to get up and walk toward Mr. Bush as Mr. Bush answered a question—the invading-his-space moment. That moment was almost an exact replica of what Bill Clinton did to poor Bob Dole in debate. It unnerved Mr. Dole and sent him scurrying back to his podium for protection.
But Mr. Bush was not unnerved. He gave Mr. Gore a sideways double take, and the audience laughed. Mr. Menace looked foolish, Mr. Bush unfazed.
But that moment spoke to another thing that occurred to me last night. Mr. Gore was quite the actor, as usual. But all the stuff Mr. Gore does—the preacherman cadences, the sprayed, lifted, thickened hair, the posture disciplined, big chested and sucked in, the moderated strut, the exaggerated movements, the putting his hand UP when he says “revenues will increase” and sweeping his arm down when he says “taxes have DEE-creased,” the angling himself at a specific, preplanned point close to the bleachers and in front of both Mr. Bush and Mr. Lehrer, that made Mr. Bush seem a little shrimp in a chair and made it difficult for Mr. Lehrer to signal to Mr. Gore that his time was ending, and which put Mr. Gore Dominating the Camera Shot Like a Manly Man . . .
All of those tricks of the Clinton era, all that cleverness—suddenly as I watched, with admiration and disgust, suddenly I thought: It isn’t working anymore. It’s over. They’ve run it into the ground! Talking to normal humans afterward I thought: It doesn’t impress people anymore. After eight years they’re on to it. They’re bored with it.
And Mr. Bush, the ingenuous man-next-door, with his very lack of polish, his heartening normality, his sometimes awkward demeanor—Mr. Humblebumble seems the antidote to it, the antidote to Clintonian cleverness and savvy. And my sense is more and more people think: We need an antidote.
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Mr. Bush may well have closed the deal in that last debate, as he made some progress in closing it in each of the first two. His positions are more in line with the majority of voters, a moderate conservatism that he is now able to explain and telegraph with a clear and commonly put argument that we don’t want to give people more government but more autonomy and freedom.
And his personality and character reinforce those positions. He is in his presentation, in his affect and demeanor, a reflection of his programs. He is respectful, moderate, commonsensical, courteous. He is, by nature, humorous and sort of joshing, but his jokes assume an equality of observation and experience—an equality, period.
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The left will soon be saying, in a Gore loss, that it all came down to personality. It wasn’t Mr. Gore’s ideas that were wrong, it was the guy’s—charmlessness! This will be a replay of what they said when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter: It was charm.
But it is never charm. It is always philosophy as expressed through programs, plans and pronouncements. Still, when the speaker for a philosophy has a persona that enhances his ability to communicate his programs and plans, that means something. It makes a difference.
Mr. Bush does. Mr. Gore doesn’t.
The Republicans seem on an upswing, 20 days out, and one senses for the first time that it just might not be as close as everyone’s saying. Though of course elections can change on a dime (she said not at all self-protectively). Joe Lieberman the other night told Tim Russert there will be no October Surprise. One wonders if the surprise was supposed to be a Mideast peace, and that quite melted in the mists as the president for once seemed to get unlucky.
And there is Mr. Bush himself, who, when he’s ahead and when he can feel his own inevitability, has a way of unfocusing, sliding, making mistakes.
It will be an interesting few weeks but this observer feels she is about to see something she saw coming in the summer: a restoration.