- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 3, 2004

Each of us may see the same event but view it differently. Just ask two different eye witnesses to the same car crash. Or to a presidential debate.

Because not just the event determines our reaction to it, but everything each of us brings to it. How we view a political debate will be affected not just by our politics but our preferences in a speaker’s style. Or even how and where we caught the debate — in front of a television set, over a car radio, in bits and pieces on the late news, or not until the next morning’s paper.

I remember thinking a forceful Richard Nixon had bested a lightweight John F. Kennedy in their first debate back in 1960, but I had listened to it on the radio — not seen it on television. Those who watched the proceedings had a quite different impression of a debonair Kennedy outflanking a nervous Nixon. Visuals can be everything in a presidential debate.

For me, the high point of Thursday night’s came when George W. Bush was invited to comment on his opponent’s character, and declined to get nasty. “Whoosh, that’s a loaded question,” he said in response to the loaded question. He went on to salute his challenger’s military service and thanked John Kerry for the kindnesses the senator had shown his daughters.

The senator reciprocated, and soon the two were talking like any two dads. Here was an assuring sign there are human beings inside those political personas. Pity they don’t come out more often when the two exchange thrusts and parries.

There were some surprises. It was Mr. Kerry who seemed more presidential. He defended his zigzag record in the most dignified way while criticizing the president’s record in controlled tones. It was Mr. Bush who acted like the challenger, pounding away at his opponent’s inconsistencies again and repetitively again. As if we couldn’t be expected to get it the first time. Or the second or third.

The president would have done better to make his case in more elevated fashion. And not show his annoyance so often. Visuals can be everything in a presidential debate.

The president may have won the debate on substance, but the senator took it on style. Style may be all in these contests, but what alternative was the senator proposing to the decisions he criticized and the policies he skewered?

Your guess is as good as and maybe better than mine. As best I could make out, John Kerry proposed to better wage this “wrong war at the wrong time in the wrong place.” He would do it by forging a broader and effective “coalition of the bribed, the coerced, the bought and extorted.” The senator would have removed the threat of Saddam Hussein without removing Saddam Hussein, who represented no real threat.

When he wasn’t demanding the troops be brought home from Iraq, Mr. Kerry was urging more of them be sent. Our troops, who are engaged in a “colossal error” and “a grand diversion,” are not fighting in vain. Out on the campaign trail, the senator may believe this administration “has lied to us, they have misled us,” but he has never accused his opponent of lying.

It was only when one listened to the senator’s words closely that questions arose. If you just drifted along with him, it all sounded good enough for government work. Besides, he’s a lot taller than the president. Or just about anybody else.

Now and then, the senator’s composure did slip. As when he protested (too much) that “I’ve never wavered… ” and “I’ve had one consistent position.” Who would have thought? But just what that one consistent position was, it would be hard to say. Invoking the United Nations at every turn is not a policy.

Only when he threw a little red meat to the true believers did the sound of reason in Mr. Kerry’s words give way to just sound: Tax Cuts for the Rich. Halliburton. Osama bin Laden was surrounded, but I would have caught him. (How does he know? Vas you der, Chollie?) Suddenly John Kerry had turned into Howard Dean, the statesman into demagogue. The mask had slipped. But only for a minute.

As the debate over who won the debate begins, and each gesture and gaffe is examined minutely, the essence of the difference between these two candidates may be lost:

The president believes we are in a world war against a radical ideology with many faces, secular and religious, and we must stay on the offensive. To drift is to invite tragedy. Again.

While the senator believes we’re up against only a “criminal network,” and must meet some kind of “global test” before acting. In short, it’s the difference between Sept. 10 and September 11, 2001.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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