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Slouching Toward Washington

By Tina Brown
Thursday, October 14, 2004; Page C01

Election tension is worse in New York now that John Kerry seems to have a chance of winning. It was almost easier when his was a sort of Children's Crusade with no one actually believing he would make it to Jerusalem.

Forget about the wise men who conjure up portentous parallel moments in the nation's history like war president William McKinley's rout of William Jennings Bryan in 1900. It's hard to believe all the passion and rancor can just subside on Nov. 3 like the air from a hissing, gaseous balloon. If George W. Bush is reelected (or if he isn't redefeated, to use the preferred local term), New Yorkers will have to find another way to channel all that neurasthenic rage and tightly wound energy currently vibrating in every part of the city's nervous system.

Unfinished business from Debate 1: The Mystery of the Rectangular Bulge. (Pool Photo)

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Last night's debates will only raise temperatures more, because no one was left dead on the floor. In a solid, fun-free slog-out, the two candidates pounded each other with dueling data bombs. The lozenge face of Sen. Kerry maintained an unrelenting top-of-the-class confidence while the president 's incredulous, repudiating smile had the glaze of the rote learner who's overdosed on Cliffs Notes. I predict it will further lift Kerry because of the way he dispatched the wimp factor, with his grinding, bony brandishing of facts. But in the days ahead, the "draw" will go on being decoded like the Dead Sea Scrolls for new clues about how it will play in Peoria.

It's no longer possible to focus on any subject other than the horse race. At 70th-birthday festivities for distinguished architect Richard Meier in the cavernously chic industrial space of a downtown gallery Monday night, the host handed out ballots and tallied them at the end. The surprise in that gathering was not the 133 votes cast for Sen. Kerry but the 20 for President Bush. Eyes narrowed and swiveled among the guests seated at the long trestle tables as a surreptitious hunt went on for the secret saboteurs. Suspicion lighted on a contingent that had flown in from Santa Barbara for the evening. But it couldn't be Outside Agitators alone. The entrepreneur on my left who had staunchly but implausibly pretended to be "undecided" at a dinner in Southampton in August had suddenly gone irritatingly coy about which way he's really going. I think I know why.

"I have no doubt that by November 2nd it's going to be Kerry," the playwright John Guare told me over drinks after an animated discussion about Zogby vs. Washington Post findings. A new poll? "Yes," he declared. "Me. I've decided to decide -- because I can't bear the suspense."

As the days tick by there's a kind of ravenous fatigue on the faces of election junkies. Everyone knows there is no policy left in this political discussion. The candidates can't risk saying anything real or substantive. A ruminative interview is the kiss of death. Kerry's appearance on the cover of the New York Times Magazine last Sunday talking to Matt Bai -- one of those thinky, smarter-than-thou journalists the president has made a career knowing how to avoid -- only got him grief for that unfortunate escapee phrase about regarding terrorism as a nuisance. Well, that's not quite what he said -- it's not even close -- but no one ever pretended in this campaign that context is king. It's too late for a new thought now. The endgame is all about running on empty. You're a liberal! Oh yeah, well you're a liar! Your plan won't work! Oh yeah, well your plan didn't work!

In this atmosphere, TV election gimmicks like the endless focus grouping of studio swing voters have gone on past their sell-by date. At debate supper gatherings there's a collective howl when CNN news twinkie Bill Hemmer starts up with all that affably inconclusive "Let's see a show of hands!" Three weeks ago it may have had a nice reality show flavor to hear from undecided Martians chosen only if they weigh 200 pounds and wear Coke-bottle glasses. But now can we please let recognizably real "real" people in? Like the ones we know on low-carb diets killing each other every day around the water coolers of opinion?

Invitations have already started to arrive for a distressing new genre of fundraisers to underwrite litigation after the polls close. Every lawyer I meet seems to be headed for a swing state to police the process on Election Night. The mounting dread is it will go on and on again like an endless White Night in St. Petersburg.

In one of those crusty Manhattan clubs earlier this week, a lawyer lunching at the communal table described how he had decided that the only way to gauge the effect of the first debate on the American public was to switch off the sound and see how the candidates really appeared! "It alarmed me to see a figure strutting the stage so belligerently. Could this antic figure really be our president?" He was swiftly disabused of his formula by a fellow member at the table who said the only real way of judging the impact was by doing what he's been doing: switching off the visuals and listening only to the sound. The result, he pronounced, was simply amazing. Once again, Kerry won! Perhaps in some apartment house in the city last night, someone was sitting in the lotus position wearing an eye mask, trying both methods of deconstruction at once.

Kerry's tentative lead in the latest polls seems to give Democrats no glee, because they are still bedeviled by their long-standing inferiority complex about strategies of war. There's just such a deeply ingrained perception that Republicans are cannier, better organized and better at winning.

Hence the hilariously long run of the Mystery of the Rectangular Bulge sighted in frozen images of the back of the president's suit jacket at Debate No. 1. The Bulge is a Rorschach test for feelings about Bush. It's also the favorite Dem delusion of the ultimate October Surprise, something to pit against the ever-present possibility that a brand-name terrorist will be captured at the eleventh hour and clinch the deal for the Bushies.

The Bulge or its imagined fallout sweeps away at last the need for all this demeaning, low-tech, door-to-door, vote-begging uncertainty. It offers something decisive, something silly, something disqualifyingly ridiculous. A Milli Vanilli president is something even the red states would understand.

©2004, Tina Brown

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