They may not be changing minds or stimulating widespread discourse, but at least President Bush and Sen. John Kerry are getting to be better debaters. Last night, the presidential candidates met for their second clash, this one staged as a "town-hall meeting" at Washington University in St. Louis.
Bush talked louder and tried to come across as less snide this time, though there's still an irritable impatience lurking beneath the surface. Sometimes when Bush would get terribly noisy and almost shout, Kerry would come back with a soft-spoken -- and thus implicitly more reasoned -- response. When playing offense, Kerry seemed more sincere in his desire to come across as the common man, not an easy trick for a guy who often looks like Eustace Tilley, the dandy who peers at a butterfly through a monocle once each year on the cover of the New Yorker.
Kerry is at least 10 times more eloquent than Bush, and he has learned to be concise in response to much criticism about sentence-length phrases, paragraph-length sentences and page-length paragraphs. He still has trouble conveying passion, and if you think that America urgently needs a change in leadership and you're it, then you should summon more passion in your responses than Kerry did last night.
In America, sadly or not, eloquence may not win you a lot of support. People seem to like Bush's insistently folksy, down-homey approach, forgetting he is worth a fortune and likin' the way he insists on droppin' g's at the end of words like "workin'."
Bush remains maddeningly repetitious, stumbling over his words at the start when he babbled about "the $87 billion" but didn't say which "$87 billion" he meant. After all, the federal government has so many $87 billions. It was only 9:08 when Bush brought up 9/11, something he tries to be the first to mention and uses to justify virtually every action he's taken on the international front.
It didn't take him long, either, to start harping on that quotation he keeps attributing, time after time, to Kerry, about Iraq being "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time." He mentioned it at least twice last night. You'd think Kerry would do something to shut him up about it, like maybe saying, "Will you shut up about that quote?!" But that wouldn't be considered sportsmanlike, and the debates are conducted according to very sportsmanlike, and sometimes very complicated, rules.
Bush came through as more passionate in his beliefs than his challenger and covered a lot more territory as he moved around the stage. Kerry had much stronger material -- better examples, data, quotes. Maybe then this debate was won on style by Bush, even as graceless as he appears to be, and won on content by Kerry. Television is a style medium, as it happens.
In the hubris department, Bush compared himself to Ronald Reagan in answering a question about why Europeans exhibit such hostility toward Americans these days -- reports that dozens of chagrined tourists have brought back with them. Said the ever-controversial Bush: "We've got a great country. I love our values."
Can we quote you on that, Mr. President?
The format of the debate had Charlie Gibson, ably affable host of ABC's "Good Morning America," holding questions that had been written on cards by an invited audience of supposedly undecided voters. As more than one TV comic has theorized, anybody who is still an undecided voter at this point can't be very bright. Anyway, the overly structured scenario had Gibson call out a name from a card, then the person who wrote the card stood in the audience and asked the question.
Why Charlie couldn't just read them is a mystery. Several times there were flubs and wastes of time while microphones were searched out. In terms of production values, this debate had all the panache and high-tech sheen of a cable-access show about how to bait your hook for a day of trout fishing.
After lots of repetitious questions and answers about Iraq, the town-hall guests managed to get the subject matter widened to include embryonic stem-cell research, the possible reinstitution of the draft (both candidates said they wouldn't do it) and, thanks to Gibson, the fact that both candidates say they would halve the deficit but haven't said how.
In the discussion on the economy, Kerry referred to Bush owning a timber company. Bush smiled and got a few laughs when he shot back, "I own a timber company? That's news to me." Then he ruined it by asking "Need some wood?" Once, again trying to be funny, he said to moderator Gibson, "You looked at me like my clock was up."
In close-ups, Bush, wearing his trademark solid blue tie, looked pasty and glazed. Some of his expressions seemed random or inappropriate. Kerry presents a more polished image but sometimes, too much so; he can appear awfully lawyerly, and he's already got one lawyer on the ticket.
Kerry was clearly the winner in the first debate but not quite as clearly in the second. Perhaps it will all become clearer next week, when the last of the debates is held. Then we can all start debating again about whether debates are very useful in the first place.