Column No. 33 By Steven Jonas, MD, MPH – October 7, 2004

This comment on the first Presidential debate, Sept. 30, 2004, comes in two parts.  The first consists of comments based on live notes that I took down on my laptop computer as the debate progressed.  The second, very short, presents a few thoughts about particular issues that did not come up, and their significance, and a couple of comments on post-debate commentary.

Part I

First, I thought that the questions coming from Jim Lehrer of PBS were well-done, to the point, no zingers; none planned out specifically to embarrass either candidate a la the famous question to Dukakis in 1988 about Kitty and the death penalty for a potential rapist.  Second, I thought that Kerry was marvelously well-prepared and so well-rehearsed that he did not look at all like he was rehearsed, just the way the top method actors do it.  Bush, most observers agree, looked tired, weak, wimpy, out-of-place, the trademark smirk replaced by a look that could have come from a Mad magazine cartoon.  To me, Kerry looked Presidential.  Bush looked like an arguer, not even a debater (but then I am prejudiced).  Bush often appeared halting: the “uhs” and the “you knows.”  Kerry didn’t utter one “uh” until almost the end of the 90 minutes.

Kerry came out fighting on such on-the-ground Iraq issues as shortages of body armor and armed Humvees.  He pointed out the truth, that the situation on the ground, for the Iraqis and American troops, is getting worse by the day.  He attacked Bush on what he has done and not done, and put forward positive plans.  Bush’s main response was to immediately lie about the connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, and then make the amazing claim that America’s security lies in “securing freedom around the world.”  Kerry kindly did not ask him just how Bush planned to go about that monster task, especially with a military that is already way over-stretched, at the same time that he is clamping down on freedom so fiercely here at home.

Bush ducked on the question, would the election of Kerry make it more likely that a terrorist attack would occur.  “He won’t. win, I will,” said Bush.  Bush went to the argument he kept repeating ad nauseum, that the US is “attacking the enemy everywhere we find him.”  He talked about the progress of voter-registration in Afghanistan.  He did not talk about voter-registration and what his party is doing to ensure that the lowest possible number of Afro-Americans get to vote in Florida.  Bush attacked the “ideology of hatred,” but did neglect to mention the hatred that spews forth every day, against, for example, our homosexual community, from his base in the Republican Religious Right.  Kerry used the opportunity presented by the question to say that he will be strong on terror, by going after it in places it is truly bred.  In that context, he attacked Bush on going into Iraq, citing the Bush lies on WMD, etc.  Kerry then used the opportunity to he list his military endorsers (and the list is a long one).

When Kerry was asked (Lehrer using Kerry’s own words) “What colossal misjudgments has Bush made?”  He cited: not wanting to go to the UN on Iraq in the first place; giving up on the UN inspection process (he did not say the obvious: Bush knew that he couldn’t let Hans Blix proceed to the end because he, Bush, already knew that Blix would in the end find no WMD); Bush did not use war only as a “last resort,” that Bush lied (although Kerry was careful never to use that specific word) in saying that “the inspections failed.”  Kerry got in a Kerry-type (that is subtle) zinger by pointing out that Iraq was not at the center of the war on terror until Bush went to war in Iraq.

Kerry called for new spending on homeland security and Bush asked “how is he going to pay for it?” Bush of course has never raised similar questions about the cost of the war in Iraq, and it was on raising the money to pay for that war by not giving yet another tax cut to the rich that Kerry voted, once, against the famous “$87 billion.” When Kerry attacked tax cuts in relation to paying for homeland security, presenting at the same time a detailed plan for taking many specific homeland defense actions that Bush has not, Bush didn’t respond.

Bush continually called all the Iraqi insurgents “terrorists,” that is until towards the end he referred to them as “Saddam loyalists” and “Ba’athists.”  Hmm.  One of Kerry’s subtle jabs that will get continuing play is his use of George I against George II on not going to, and going to, Baghdad without a doable exit plan.  Another is Kerry’s admission that he made a mistake in how he talked about the war, while the Pres. made a mistake in invading Iraq.  Which mistake would you rather have, Kerry said?  Brilliant.

When Kerry was asked about Bush lies, he said that he wouldn’t use that word, but gave examples Bush “not being candid:” “yellow cake and the State of the Union address,” “building a real coalition,” “not allowing the UN process to go to completion,” “abandoning other lines of diplomacy,” “told us he had a plan.”  Kerry also used the opportunity to talk about his own foreign policy experience.

Kerry used his Vietnam experience in a very sophisticated, understated way.  A great one-liner was that we “must not confuse the war with the warriors.”  He went on to say that he is determined to make sure that the outcome of the Iraq War honors their nobility.  He said that he has a plan for winning in Iraq, and spelled it out in detail.  The President never did the same thing, either because he doesn’t have a plan, or does but couldn’t possibly share it with American people or the world, not to mention the people of Iraq, because it primarily focuses on making sure that American oil companies get their hands on that Kurdish oil.

The President is not getting the job done, Kerry said, and he very smartly referred to his website where viewers can find more detail on his position. Kerry talked specifically about giving up the bases the US is building in Iraq, and said that he will make a clear statement that US has no long-term designs on Iraq.  He pointed out that when US forces first arrived in Baghdad, they guarded the oil ministry, but not the nuclear energy ministry.  He could have mentioned many other civil ministries and the museums being left to the predations of the looters, but did not.

Kerry pointed out that 35 to 40 countries around the world have a capability of making WMD.  Any pre-emptive war must be undertaken with credibility, he said. Another fine one-liner in this context was: “We didn’t need to rush to war without a plan to win the peace.”   In this context he did make the one statement that the Republicans will use to their advantage: “the global test” one.  What he meant was that before going to war on its own, the US should make sure to take into account the positions of our allies and see if they will come along with us in significant numbers, but if in the end the President decides to go it alone, after exhausting all other options, he should.  But that is not how the Republicans will spin it, and since they have little else to go with, spin it they will.  Kerry is going to have to fix that one quickly.

Kerry responded instantly on the question, what is the most serious threat to US security: nuclear proliferation.  He stated that he will help Russia to clean up its left-over nuclear material as quickly as possible (which Bush is not doing; has actually cut funds for that project) and that he will give up our own new nuclear weapons expansion program as quickly as possible, for it is totally hypocritical to ask for nuclear proliferation controls when the US is developing an entirely new generation of nuclear weapons.  In relation to relations with Russia, Bush said that there need to be checks and balances in a democracy.  Funny, he doesn’t seem to think that when it comes to government in the United States. He is working as hard as he can to eliminate that primary feature of our Constitution. Oh yes, also on Russia, Bush approved on Putin’s response to the Beslan horror.  Kerry let that one go.

There are many other observations to make, such as that Kerry pointed that Powell had had to apologize for mis-leading UN, Bush has messed up in North Korea, Bush talks about negotiations and sanctions in dealing with the truly dangerous North Korea and Iran, but for some reason didn’t want to follow the same rout in dealing with the much less threatening-to-us Iraq, but this note is getting rather long as it is.

Part II

Let me just mention of a couple of issues that weren’t there, and why not.  Lehrer asked Bush to address the “character” issue.  Bush just lobbed compliments in Kerry’s direction.  He couldn’t get into the Swift Boat Brownshirt-type lies because then that would have given Kerry the opening to bring up the truth about Bush’s own “military service” record.  Nor did he openly raise the “flip-flop” issue, because his handlers knew that Kerry would come back with both barrels on Bush’s own, much more serious, flip-flops (like, for example, the reason he went to war in Iraq).  Second, Bush couldn’t mention 9/11, formerly a big “how great did I respond on that one, folks” issue for him, because that would have given Kerry an opportunity to bring up Richard Clarke, Treasury Secretary O’Neill, the 9/11 Commission Report and what his party is and is not doing with it in Congress, the famous August 6, 2001 Presidential Daily Briefing, and so on and so forth.  Sometimes what isn’t said can be as fascinating as what is

And finally, briefly on the immediate post-debate analyses.  Bush is in real trouble.  The only people saying what a great job he did were his flacks, especially Karen Hughes who was all over the place.  I held my nose and watched Fox on purpose.  Well, when Morton Kondracke and Bill Kristol, big Bush cheerleaders, say that “on balance” Kerry “did better” (“won” was a word that just couldn’t cross their lips, now could it), that means that it went extremely well for Kerry.  Friday morning, again, even a commentator from The Wall Street Journal, interviewed on NBC, was saying that Kerry did very well and Bush didn’t.

I do have to note that post-debate on Fox, after their pundits, mainly right-wingers of course, gave it to Kerry on points, right-wing flack Sean Hannity, playing “journalist,” came on, to “interview” Hughes.  So one of Bush’s strongest national-media supporters interviews one of Bush’s strongest inner-circle supporters.  And then the same flack “interviews” (yes, it was a second debate in fact) Richard Holbrooke, representing Sen. Kerry.  Well that’s “fair and balanced” isn’t it?  After all, they had one from each side, with the rather weak liberal Alan Colmes nowhere to be seen up front.  He did come on later, after most people (including me), on the East Coast at least, had turned off their televisions sets and gone to bed.

And now I am turning of my computer.  Hope that you found something of interest and use in this not-so-little missive.