I can’t get enough of these Presidential debates. It’s like Monday night football – er, Super Twelve -- for debate geeks. Or for the whole world. There we all are, sitting on the couch with a beer in hand, yelling at the TV: “Kick it into touch!” “Hollywood!” “Get up off the ground, ya wuss!”
It’s balm to my nerdy soul, a ringing retort to those who think debating isn’t a real sport. I never broke my nose while delivering a particularly decisive rebuttal, but twice a year, there I was with my team, off to Easter or Winter Tourney. We were there on the ferry with puking rugby players performing rousing choruses of “Na na nah nah, get your gears off,” and we passed as hardened sporting reps as long as no-one asked what we played.
Just this once, though, everyone is watching my sport.
The opening match was excellent, and not just because my team won. I sat on the couch, with a bowl of popcorn at my elbow, and an insomniac Busytot on my lap, and delivered a play-by-play adjudication as John Kerry kicked Bush’s sorry, surly arse into touch. Repeatedly.
Who would believe that Bush and Kerry had the same debate coach at Yale? Obviously they learned different things from him. Kerry learned how to debate, and distinguished himself by whupping a previously undefeated touring Oxbridge team.
Mind you, debate, American-style, is a different beast from the variation practiced across the Commonwealth, not nearly as audience-friendly. It's a serious, linear, fact-heavy enterprise; where we prize the random witty repartee, they prize the solid party line.
I should confess that most of what I know about the American version of debating, I learned from an immortal film called Listen To Me. I call it immortal because it will not die, and according to the scarily illiterate reviews on Amazon, junior debaters across the country are still thrilling to Kirk Cameron’s performance as a young gun in thrall to the icy, take-no-prisoners debate coach played by Roy Scheider. Oh yeah, there’s also a love plot, as alluded to in the official synopsis:
Two crack college debaters can't find the words to express their feelings for one another. But being thrust into the finals against Harvard and standing before the Supreme Court Justices, the two must break down their own walls of communication...
Which is more or less what happened in the first Bush-Kerry debate. Except there was only one crack college debater on the stage. Bush was a washout, the guy you’d put at First Speaker if you had the bad luck to draw him as a team-mate in the mix-and-match round. First Speaker can get by with repeating a few key lines. Everyone else needs to be on their toes and ready to rebut, which requires a quick wit and a critical mass of intelligence.
Even then, you're doomed if you argue a losing case. The one time in my life I got help from an outside source during a debate was when my team, giddy from lack of sleep and overindulgence in Easter Tourney spirit, elected to argue "That We Should Copy the Japanese" with reference to Pearl Harbour. Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
About thirty seconds into my first affirmative speech, I noticed a senior debater down the back of the room gesturing to attract my attention. He shook his head sadly. He drew a finger across his throat repeatedly. And then he cocked an imaginary gun to his temple (perhaps in reference to the classic adjudicatorial line about how one team shot themselves in the foot, but then the other team shot themselves in the head).
He was right. We were screwed. But if we'd had a cunning plan, like some brilliant accomplices in the back row and a more than rudimentary knowledge of sign language, or -- here's a thought -- an invisible earpiece and a radio transmitter, we might have been able to pull out of that kamikaze death dive before it was too late!
Which brings me to those “rumours on the internets” that Bush was wired and that he was being fed lines through that NASA-designed radio transmitter between his shoulder-blades and a miniature telephone implanted in one of his molars. Conspiracy theorists and gadget-heads are working overtime to identify the mystery object glimpsed under Bush's suit jacket -- a squarish bulge in the first debate, and a thick wire in the second.
As many a commentator has pointed out, if Dubya was on a direct line to God or Karl Rove or Karen Hughes, he might have done a trifle better in the debate. And there are plenty of alternative explanations for that mysterious rectangular lump on his back, too. Take your pick from the theories floating around the internets. It’s a bullet-proof vest (although Bush’s people have explicitly ruled this one out). A rumple in the fabric of the French-tailored suit. A back brace. A medicine pump (delivering a patented mix of caffeine, Ritalin, and vodka). A spine implant. A brain-eating alien parasite (yes, yes, a very hungry one). A string that, when pulled, makes him say one of five phrases. A parachute just in case the Almighty changes his mind about George halfway through the Rapture.
Conspicuously, neither Dick Cheney nor John Edwards needed electronic back-up in their vice-presidential rendezvous. Cheney boldly lied through his teeth in a darkly saurian mumble (one online wag suggested he was much more comprehensible if you had a smattering of Parseltongue). And ace lawyer Edwards winked and twinkled and flirted with the jury at home, resembling no-one so much as Carrie Bradshaw’s Mr Big. He also mentioned several dozen times how smart his boss was. Cheney’s silence on this score was deafening.
Round two between Bush and Kerry had echoes of their first encounter, but a more vigorous pace thanks to the gladiatorial style of the forum. Kerry’s delivery was smooth and consoling, even though he spent too much time rebutting things Bush hadn’t said. When he sat back on his stool to watch Bush flail around, he adopted the mournful countenance of a wise old owl. Once again Kerry invoked Bush père as a psy-op tool to rattle Junior, but he himself channeled an avuncular vibe, like the disappointed uncle watching a once promising nephew make a noodle of himself.
Bush, meanwhile, fiddled ceaselessly with the front of his suit (fixing that there volume button on his magic radio?) and hectored the audience in a voice that grew reedier and crankier by the minute. Between engagements, he perched on his stool and winked and grimaced at no-one in particular (the voices in his back teeth?). Asked to discuss three mistakes he’d made - a common enough job interview question, after all, and one for which you always prepare a clever answer -- he couldn’t think of one.
Surprisingly, the audience was the real winner on the night. They were a homogeneous bunch - almost uniformly white, well-dressed and well-spoken -- but their questions were intelligent, nuanced, and surprising.
And yet the town-hall format, aimed at engaging the “undecided voters,” apparently didn’t sway them either way. The polls and oracles are at once partisan and noncommittal – it seems that if you think Kerry won, you think Kerry won, and if you think Bush won, you think Bush won. And if you were undecided before, you still can't wrap your head around the differences between the two candidates.
Frankly I can’t imagine how you could possibly be an “undecided” voter, this year of all years. Saying “um, gee, I dunno…” at this point seems like an indefensible luxury, one of those first-world breaches of commonsense and good taste that baffle and infuriate the rest of the planet (like buying a gas-guzzling, Beetle-crushing, rollover-prone SUV to commute to the office). And yet the undecideds don’t appear to be the least bit agonized or embarrassed by the sudden malfunction of the choosing part of their brain. On the whole they tend to look self-righteously cautious, a fussy diner dallying over the menu, torn between chicken and beef. Tough if you’re vegetarian.
Best of three, then?