John Kerry came off as more presidential than the president last night as the two candidates met for their first face-to-face debate, televised live on all the networks from the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. President Bush did not appear to have a firm grasp on the major issues being discussed, opting instead for the repetition of sloganlike remarks and repeated attacks on his Democratic challenger.
Over and over -- and over -- Bush accused Sen. Kerry of having called Bush's invasion of Iraq "the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time." He also hammered away with one of the Republicans' favorite themes in their assault on Kerry: that he vacillates on issues depending on how political winds are blowing. The term "flip-flopping" may not itself have been used, or at least not often, but Kerry once referred to Bush changing his mind and said, "His campaign has a word for that."
It could be that flip-flopping has played itself out, thanks in part to relentless lampooning of the phrase by topical TV comics.
Kerry acknowledged a bit of flip-floppery by conceding, "I made a mistake in how I talk about the war," but said that Bush's mistake, actually starting the war, was worse.
Jim Lehrer of public television did a first-rate job of moderating the debate, fighting against the stuffiness imposed by debate negotiators. The audience in the hall was kept so emotionally and spiritually distant from the proceedings that there was really no reason for them to be there at all (one forthcoming debate will use the "town hall" format and presumably concede that an audience exists). Lehrer also proved productively flexible with the rules about 90-second statements and 30-second rebuttals -- letting the candidates finish their thoughts rather than rudely cutting them off mid-sentence.
Bush wore his traditional blue necktie, though a darker shade than the usual robin's-egg hue, and Kerry wore the classic TV-red necktie; red ties supposedly lend color to the face of whoever wears them, and if there's anything the Massachusetts senator needs, it's color. But he gave one of his best public performances ever last night, just lively enough, just respectful enough to the president and yet aggressive enough to, at times, make Bush appear confused by his own answers. Bush did more stammering and pausing than Kerry.
At times, Bush sounded plaintive and anxious. Bob Schieffer of CBS News told anchor Dan Rather after the debate, "The president was somewhat defensive at the beginning" but that he grew more comfortable as the 90-minute debate -- or "joint appearance," as Rather absolutely insists on calling these things -- went on.
Fox News Channel, which relied heavily on split screens that showed both candidates within the same frame, gave viewers a good chance to compare the video demeanors of the two men -- Kerry tall and statesmanlike, Bush shorter (though camera angles tried to even them out) and ill at ease. Brit Hume, Fox News anchor, said of Bush after the debate that "he looked annoyed" about the whole thing, and he did; he gave the impression that the debate was an intrusion on his time, much as his father had done when he famously or infamously glanced at his watch during a debate way back in the 20th century.
Mark Shields, commenting for PBS, seemed impressed that "Kerry showed no nervousness at all. . . . He got stronger as it went along." Commentators generally agreed it was a smooth and confident performance but one that happily lacked glib slickness or any sense of smug overconfidence. On NBC, Tim Russert said Kerry found his voice and convincingly articulated "the Democratic view of the world."
One longtime political observer -- among the friends canvassed by this critic -- was more irreverent about the debate and how the two debaters came off: "It was Andy Griffith meets Barney Fife," he said, with Kerry in the Griffith role -- solid, sanguine, sensible -- and Bush as the nervous Fife.
Near the end of the telecast, Bush made some not terribly comprehensible comments about how his daughters were getting along with the Kerry daughters. It was then revealed, as family members moved onto the stage, that the first lady and the would-be first lady wore virtually identical white suits to the event. As a fashion blunder this was less serious than a video fluff; it's not a good idea to dress in all-white because TV cameras don't like it. In the early days of television, it was virtually unthinkable since the white would flare blindingly and all but obliterate the rest of the picture.
Even if Kerry appeared to win the encounter on basic debating points, Bush retained the tremendous advantage of being a wartime president seeking reelection and a vote of confidence in the war he started. He's no Ronald Reagan, but he did strike a note of Reaganesque sloganeering eloquence when he told the audience, in reference to the war against terrorism, "We climbed the mighty mountain and I see the valley below, and that's the valley of peace."