Hard work, if you can get it

I don’t think anyone expected Kerry to do anything less than trounce Bush on the issues. The surprise is that he destroyed him televisually.

I watched with a room full of liberals reluctant to get their hopes up. But what was on screen looked to me decisive. When Bush’s voice cracked as he said the word “anyway,” his lips quivering and his head twisted at an angle that should only be possible in puppets, it seemed to me that he lost the election. If a clip of those two or three seconds were to be replayed by the broadcast media one eighth as many times as they played the clip of Howard Dean’s scream, I think November 2 would be a landslide.

Kerry stood erect. Bush was hunched forward over the podium, clutching it. Kerry looked straight at Lehrer as he answered him. Bush rolled his eyes and jerked his head about. Kerry’s voice was deep, clear, and confident. Bush’s not only cracked, but in timbre it was whining and pleading. He sounded not like an adult but like a child. “It’s hard work,” he repeated several times. He did not say it as someone proud of work and ready to do more of it. He spoke as if it were an imposition, and he thought he deserved more recognition. “You forgot Poland,” was not delivered in a tone of voice even remotely presidential.

When Bush criticized Kerry, Kerry smiled and took notes. He was not only writing down words but underlining some of them. He was collected enough, in other words, not only to be thinking ahead but to be choosing where to place his emphasis. When Kerry criticized Bush, by contrast, Bush craned his head at a strange angle and pursed his lips, like a disapproving hall monitor. He sighed loudly. He blinked heavily, as if he didn’t want to see what was before him. In the last exchange, just before the closing speeches—clunky from both men—it looked to me as if Bush were about to cry.

Kerry’s comments were tightly organized, and he finished his thoughts just before the red light began to blink. On several of his turns, by contrast, Bush stopped talking while the light was still yellow, and often he seemed to be stalling until then. (Thanks to the colored lights, he didn’t have to look at his watch to reassure himself that soon it would be over.) Bush was at a loss to bring up anything except Kerry’s supposed inconsistency, which he harped on. He seemed to be waiting for a laugh track that never came—like a child in a playground who continues to retell a joke because he hasn’t realized that the other children no longer think it clever. Somehow I don’t think his impromptu about keeping his daughters on a leash will play well with single women voters.

I did not expect Bush to be so flustered or Kerry so composed. It seemed to me that Bush had no idea that he was going to be challenged—that Kerry would ask why he let Osama bin Laden escape, why he started a war on false pretences, why he let North Korea go nuclear, why 95% of container shipments into the U.S. are not screened, or why Russia’s loose nukes remain unsecured. His failure to prepare for these questions is startling. It is hard work, being the president. Maybe he’d like to go home.