Sunday, October 03, 2004
Sidney Blumenthal on Bush's debate performance
Saturday October 2, 2004
After months of flawless execution in a well-orchestrated campaign, President Bush had to stand alone in an unpredictable debate. He had travelled the country, appearing before adoring pre-selected crowds, delivered a carefully crafted acceptance speech before his convention, and approved tens of millions of dollars in TV commercials to belittle his opponent. In the lead, Bush believed he had only to assert his superiority to end the contest once and for all.
But onstage the president ran out of talking points. Unable to explain the logic for his policies, or think on his feet, he was thrown back on the raw elements of his personality and leadership style.
Every time he was confronted with ambivalence, his impulse was to sweep it aside. He claimed he must be followed because he is the leader. Fate, in the form of September 11, had placed authority in his hands as a man of destiny. Scepticism, pragmatism and empiricism are enemies. Absolute faith prevails over open-ended reason, subjectivity over fact. Belief in belief is the ultimate sacrament of his political legitimacy.
In the split TV screen, how Bush felt was written all over his face. His grimaces exposed his irritation and anger at being challenged. Lacking intellectual stamina and repeating points as though on a feedback loop, he tried to close argument by assertion. With no one interrupting him, he protested, "Let me finish" - a phrase he occasionally deploys to great effect before the cowed White House press corps.