President Bush is so certain of his course that in the second debate, he couldn't conjure a single mistake he's made as president.
I, on the other hand, am unsure of lots of things. But two things I know:
Love and fear.
I discuss, ponder or act upon one or the other throughout my waking hours and continue in my dreams. Love and fear are human beings' most basic emotions, our most primal motivations. No wonder candidates coddle us with misty images of the America -- and Americans -- we love.
Then comes the fear.
Sen. John F. Kerry's invocation of his late mother's moving hospital-bed admonition -- "Remember: integrity, integrity, integrity" -- was a classic love-and-warmth move. So was President Bush's mention of a beloved painting of a Texas mountain's "sunrise side," the side that sees "the day that is coming, not . . . the day that is gone."
Politicians, like advertisers intent on selling us something, work to induce our warmest feelings, hoping we'll associate the irresistible pull of these sentiments with their candidacies.
Then they use our love to spark our fears. Everything that we love, they insist, will be immeasurably more secure if they're elected. It's why Kerry keeps insisting, "I will hunt [terrorists] down and . . . kill them," and Bush refers to making us "safer" five times in a single speech.
Political fear-mongering is a time-honored American tradition.
It took Sept. 11, 2001, however, to elevate it to high art.
The instant that images of planes melting into the World Trade Center penetrated our disbelief, our sense of America as a safe haven evaporated. We were to-the-bone terrified. And for good reason.
Repeatedly in 9/11's aftermath, Americans -- their simmering terror heightened by anthrax letters and color-coded terror alerts -- have demonstrated fear's unique power. When Bush alarmingly suggested that Saddam Hussein was connected to the attacks, fear silenced many doubters' questions. Fear pushed many of us to accept a Patriot Act that, while safeguarding us, unnecessarily threatens the privacy of law-abiding citizens. Our fear-fueled acceptance of the administration's insistence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction hurried us into war.
It wasn't true. Yet more than 1,100 Americans are no longer living, breathing or loving because of a war based on these untruths. Their tragic deaths are rightly mourned. Yet we often ignore that each of Iraq's more than 10,000 dead civilians was an actual human being, connected to survivors who also mourn. What might their bitterness over a trumped-up war inspire?
Daily, the fear-fest persists. A recent Kerry ad depicted the agony of families of slain American soldiers; a Bush commercial featuring Osama bin Laden and his masked compatriots asks, "Would you trust Kerry against these fanatic killers?"