Political Memo: In the Spotlight, the Debaters Stick to What They Do Best
By Frank Bruni, October 4, 2000
BOSTON, Oct. 3--It was not enough for Vice President Al Gore to venture a crisp pronunciation of Milosevic, as in Slobodan, the Yugoslav president who refuses to be pried from power.
Mr. Gore had to go a step further, volunteering the name of Mr. Milosevic's challenger, Vojislav Kostunica.
Then he had to go a step beyond that, noting that Serbia plus Montenegro equals Yugoslavia.
And as Mr. Gore loped effortlessly through the Balkans, barely able to suppress his self-satisfied grin, it became ever clearer that the point of all the thickets of consonants and proper nouns was not a geopolitical lesson.
It was more like oratorical intimidation, an unwavering effort to upstage and unnerve an opponent whose mind and mouth have never behaved in a similarly encyclopedic fashion.
The conventional wisdom held that in tonight's presidential debate, the first, and perhaps most important, of three encounters between Mr. Gore and Gov. George W. Bush, Mr. Gore should show voters a warm and fuzzy side while Mr. Bush should seize a tough, commanding tone.
But neither man could resist reverting to type: in Mr. Gore's case, the man who loves to show off how much he knows; in Mr. Bush's case, the man who would rather sidestep the bogs of detailed policy to get to the meadows of emotional pronouncements.
Mr. Bush even told a story about a flood-devastated family in Texas with whom he had cried.
"That's what governors do," he said.
Despite Mr. Gore's efforts at laughter and all his references to the middle-class people who had become his chums, he was above all a reference book of foreign names and domestic facts and figures.
And despite Mr. Bush's frequent stabs at specificity, he just as often clung to broad statements of good intent, using questions as springboards for practiced assertions that he would be a good leader, bring people together and care.
Mr. Gore lunged for his speaking time, and quickly crammed it with words.
Mr. Bush ambled up to his, shaking his head at the behavior of his opponent, which he clearly wanted voters to deem overbearing.
Mr. Bush has always presented himself as the more affable man, and he pulled off a small victory at the start of the debate to buttress that claim. Walking onto the stage, he strode past his own lectern and right up to Mr. Gore's, which was where they shook hands. It made Mr. Bush seem more eager to exchange good wishes.
Mr. Gore had long endured criticism for his readiness to score points with sad stories about his relatives, but here he was, bringing yet another family member into the fray.
"Look, that's where World War I started, in the Balkans," he said at one point, talking about the recent turmoil in that area of the world. "My uncle was a victim of poison gas there."
Mr. Bush had long endured criticism for his vagueness, but here he was, using an all-purpose sound bite to rebut a charge by Mr. Gore that he would not provide elderly people with a prescription-drug benefit quickly enough.
"I guess my answer to that is, the man's running on `Mediscare,' trying to frighten people in the in the voting booth," Mr. Bush said. That stutter crept into many of his answers.
True to form, Mr. Bush mixed up some words, saying that elderly people dependent on Social Security should rest assured that their promises would be "made," not kept.
True to form, Mr. Gore adopted the lexicon of a teacher.
"Let me explain the difference," he said.
Mr. Gore attacked, firing the same bullet over and over: that the "wealthiest 1 percent" of Americans would get more money in tax cuts from Mr. Bush than Mr. Bush would spend on social programs for less privileged Americans.
Mr. Bush played the nice guy taken aback by such aggression, wondering again and again why Mr. Gore would indulge in so much "fuzzy math."
They were dressed almost like twins, in red ties and dark suits. But they were hardly identical.
Mr. Gore kept digressing to explain things, as if Mr. Bush needed the tutorials. Mr. Bush kept telling voters to listen to his own words and not Mr. Gore's characterizations of them, as if nothing Mr. Gore said could be trusted.
Mr. Gore recalled little encounters from his past.
"When the action in Kosovo was dragging on and we were searching for a solution to the problem," he said, "I invited the former prime minister of Russia to my house."
Mr. Bush either got a little confused or pretended that he did, displaying a softness of focus and good humor in response to a question about how, as president, he might deal with emergencies.
"I've been standing up to big Hollywood, to big trial lawyers," Mr. Bush began, then stopped himself, breaking into a grin. "What was the question? It was about emergencies, wasn't it?"
Which man won?
Well, that depended on whether a reporter sought the answer under the big placard that read "Alexis Herman," the secretary of labor, who was on hand to sing Mr. Gore's praises, or under the one that read "Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn," Republican of Washington, on hand to talk up Mr. Bush.
The placards were hoisted and carried high to help sort out the Democrats from the Republicans and distinguish one spinner from another as a who's who of Washington movers and shakers competed to offer their opinions at the end of the event.
Interested in the view of Gov. John Engler, Republican of Michigan? Or Andrew Cuomo, secretary of housing and urban development in the Clinton administration? All a person had to do was look up above and follow the sign.
It was the ultimate illustration of just how much importance both Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush placed on this event. But while the stakes were bigger than ever, the candidates, to some extent, were the same as always.
Voters who had been paying attention to the election probably did not get to know the candidates any better. But people paying attention for the first time got to know them perfectly well.
Go to: Vietnam Medal of Honor Citations
© 2000 by Neil Mishalov