- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 6, 2004

A deficiency of nationally televised presidential debates is that so many commentators equip themselves with microscopes to discern the least important thing about the events so they can then convert their finding into a major issue that confirms their prejudices.

The irrelevancy that has generated the most excitement since the set-to between George W. Bush and John Kerry last week is what transpired on Mr. Bush’s face when Mr. Kerry’s lengthy jaw was flapping.

President Bush’s lips went up and down and around, and it is possible to imagine there was meaning in the movements, just as it is possible for astrologers to imagine there is meaning conferred by the star alignment on your birth date.

One observer, Harvard humanities professor Stephen Greenblatt, thought Mr. Bush displayed “an astonishing range of emotions: confusion, annoyance and something like rage.”

Mr. Greenblatt says in a New York Times op-ed piece that it was as if the audience had seen into the mind of Antony as he addressed Romans in Shakespeare’s play, “Julius Caesar.” The professor was not being complimentary. Antony, he told us earlier, played on fear and greed, hoping to use escalating violence for selfish purposes.

I subscribe to a different theory: Our president suffers from idiosyncratic lip muscles. They behave in such a way that his smiles look like smirks to some, betraying Mr. Bush’s benign intentions. He has become self-conscious about his lips and does all he can to make them act contrary to their habits. He had to be aware the nation would be watching his face when Mr. Kerry spoke. The mission was clear: Control those lips. But in his wrestling match with them, he left himself open for critics to say, “Look at that. The guy is projecting the despicable inner attitudes I always knew he had.”

Mr. Kerry, too, had problems in this regard, it seemed to me. At least a few times when Mr. Bush was having at him, he looked distracted, as if in a daze. Others may not have seen it that way, and that’s OK with me. I don’t think it makes much difference one way or the other. For something like 45 minutes each, in front of an audience of tens of millions, these candidates had to stand still with nothing to do and try to look like something other than idiots. Go to your bathroom and try it out between just you and the mirror — for only 5 minutes — and see how dignified you think you look.

Is content, then, the only thing that matters in these debates — the uttered words that may or may not add up to something coherent and sensible? No. Al Gore’s sighing in his first debate with Mr. Bush four years ago was worth noting because it was so unmistakably an affectation, done with calculated aforethought to demonstrate disdain, and because the sighs at first made you wonder if he had appendicitis and needed to be rushed to a hospital. But a hospital wasn’t needed so much as a lecture on how to act like a polite and humble adult.

Even then, I think it would be a mistake to base a vote on that bit of behavior, certainly not in and of itself, just as it would have been a worse mistake to base a vote on Richard Nixon’s “5 o’clock shadow” when he debated John F. Kennedy or the first George Bush’s glances at his watch when he debated Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.

I am not even sure some content flubs should count for too much in what is, after all, an artificial situation that is not finally all that good a test of how someone might function as president. We may learn something from a debate that can help round out our views of the candidates in the context of everything else we know about them. We may come to more reliable convictions about their minds and character and ideas. But that’s not likely to happen when people make mountains — or Shakespearean dramas — out of molehills.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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