The debate’s about to start and I’m stuck in traffic, cursing, pounding the wheel, and trying very hard not to get into an accident. Damn the drivers clogging the road. They should be home watching, or at least pulling over to let those of us through who do want to watch, like they would for an ambulance or a fire truck. I’m racing to a global emergency.
The debate begins. My fury is mounting. I’m listening to the radio, but hearing isn’t enough. I have to see it. The fate of the world may hang on the fleeting expression, the way a hand fiddles with a pen, or moves unconsciously to the face. I want to be part of that intimate crowd of millions watching this event. I must be mad.
I’ve agreed to watch at my daughter’s house despite qualms that granddaughter Luna June, eighteen months old love-of-my- life but too young to be interested in politics, will interfere with my concentration. I’ve received assurances that the TV will be warmed up and ready to go so I won’t miss a moment, but as I pull into the driveway it’s as I feared. There’s Rachel with Luna June in her arms, walking around outside, casual as can be. I slam to a stop, radio blaring, unwilling to get out of the car until the TV is on. Rachel goes inside, then appears at the door, gesturing for me to come in. I set a stool a foot from the screen and crank up the volume. I endeavor to turn myself into a resonating membrane registering every nuance of this event. Granddaughter and neighbor’s baby are running around, prattling away. Parents are soothing, feeding, negotiating the possession of toys, reading ABC books. The noises of the world are intruding.
And I’m crawling into the TV set. Into a zone of endless red white and blue. All other colors - pink, chartreuse, the color purple for god’s sake, Van Gogh’s yellow, the poop brown of babies diapers, moss green, peach, orange – are banished. Bush’s tie is blue; Kerry’s red. How did they choose which color to wear? What if they’d worn the same color? Did they have spies in each other’s camp? Did they negotiate tie color in their 32-page agreement?
Who cares about the color of the ties? Somebody I am sure has given it considerable thought. This event is not about rationality or reality. It’s about packaging, branding, projecting an image. Strength! Resolve! It’s about engineering a bond between leader and led. Substance may be the least important ingredient in the pie. The world doomed by the wrong tie color – it’s not out of the question.
No, of course what they are saying is important. I listen carefully. Does Kerry think the war in Iraq is a mistake or not? I can’t figure it out. Jim Lehrer reminds him that in a moment of magnificent lucidity, as another war raged a young Kerry asked “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
“Are Americans now dying in Iraq for a mistake?” Jim asks. Kerry’s “No,” is out before Jim’s lips have stopped moving. He’s like a man who’s seen a ghost, a man who hopes that “No” will exorcise the demon of his past righteousness. “Yes,” he could have said. “Yes,” he should have said. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” I want him to say. But it will never happen. Not in this red white and blue world.
Kerry is not dumb. He scores points. Bush is clearly the global village idiot. He has those moments of My-Pet-Goat blankness in which he stares at some indefinite point in space, hoping that an answer will swim into view. Finally he retrieves from the fog a pre-programmed tape. I imagine his handlers sighing. He’s stupid, but he’s cunning. He pounces when Kerry let’s fall a smidgen of unspeakable truth. Kerry says “Osama bin Laden uses the invasion of Iraq in order to go out to people and say that America has declared war on Islam.” Bush with gimlet eyes, swoops, comes up with Kerry carcass in his mouth: “My opponent just said something amazing. He said Osama bin Laden uses the invasion of Iraq as an excuse to spread hatred for America. Osama bin Laden isn’t going to determine how we defend ourselves. Osama bin Laden doesn’t get to decide. The American people decide.” It’s all over I think. Kerry’s dead in the water. He’s ready for the glue pot.
Jim asks the candidates’ position on the whole concept of preemptive war. Kerry could have said that no internationally recognized doctrine of preemption justifies the invasion of Iraq. But intentional law is for wimps. For girlie men. So instead he says “the president always has the right, and always has had the right, for preemptive strike. That was a great doctrine throughout the Cold War.” But then he adds a qualification: “You have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you’re doing what you’re doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons.”
Big mistake. America doesn’t have to prove anything to the world. We’re number 1.
Bush is on him: “I’m not exactly sure what you mean, passes the global test,” he responds. “My attitude is you take preemptive action in order to protect the American people, that you act in order to make this country secure.” I imagine the high fives in the Bush camp, the plans already begun for campaign commercials skewering Kerry with his “global test.”
The talking heads say Kerry won. The instant polls give him the edge. I hope they’re right. The Bush team is betting that wanton idiocy will trump intelligence, cunning will trump wit, ruthlessness will overcome scruples, and unreason will overwhelm reason. Despite the odds, I’m going to bet against them.