Hope vs. fear

They both have unusual mouths. Cheney seems to be simultaneously sneering and biting the side off a piece of fruit. Edwards seems to be struggling with the remnants of a childhood speech impediment, which is sympathetic, but you wonder whether the appeal to sympathy might be a trial lawyer’s ploy.

It wasn’t a rout. Cheney is a more substantial personality than Bush. It isn’t in his repertoire, for example, to complain about hard work. Like Bush, however, he has accustomed himself to an environment where his assertions are not challenged. Thus his refrain: “It’s hard to know where to start.” It has been a long time since he has had to argue about facts, and it is unfamiliar.

Cheney did not cling as desperately as Bush did to the charge of Kerry’s inconsistency. But he did repeat it, and it did seem simpleminded. I wonder if the Cheney-Bush campaign has mistaken the terrain of battle here. A reductive one-liner is a good weapon if only a snippet of your speech will make it into the cable news spin cycle. But in an hour and a half of debate, a reductive one-liner is easily put into context and punctured. To repeat it in debate, after it has been punctured, is to reveal a low estimation of your audience.

In writing this entry, I am aware that I am contributing to the miasma-conversation about who won or didn’t win. I have heard many people say in the last few days that they were convinced by Kerry on Thursday but were unsure who the polls and pundits would say had won. They seemed hesitant to trust Kerry’s victory. I think that’s part of why Edwards’s closing statement was so moving:

Here’s the truth:_I have grown up in the bright light of America. But that light is flickering today._Now, I know that the vice president and the president don’t see it, but you do.

My heart was in my throat when he said that. It was startling—the direct address, the appeal to citizens to trust their own perceptions, and the acknowledgment that those perceptions have been denied and disowned and are now hard to trust.

The key words in Cheney’s closing statement: “threat,” “terror,” “conflict,” “deadly.” Like Bush, he stressed the magic fatefulness of 9/11. That is, he spun further mystifications around the idea that since history has decided, the people no longer can.

The choice between the two seemed stark: hope or fear.