- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 17, 2004

Settling down to watch the third presidential debate and familiar ordeal, I decided to forgo the round-by-round scorecard, the inevitable misstatements and exaggerations on the part of both contenders . … All that could safely be left to fact-checkers in this Internet era, bless their nitpicking hearts.

Instead, I would try to look beyond the clutter of argumentation — the debater’s techniques and political postures and general sound and fury — for some connecting threads. And hope there still were some in American politics.

What would this third and mercifully final debate tell us about each candidate beyond how well they had absorbed their briefing books? Which could take the country forward, and which would only mark time? Who would make the better leader — the better wartime leader? Who would confront the great challenges facing the country — and the West — and who would only try to put them off? Finally, and most important to some of us, which had the character a successful presidency demands? Especially in a time of testing.

Strangely enough, it was the challenger who seemed wistful for the past rather than determined to shape the future. If there was a constant, underlying theme in Sen. John Kerry’s general dissatisfaction with things and policies as they are, it was… nostalgia. Specifically, nostalgia for the 1990s, which seem to grow more attractive the more they recede.

Mr. Kerry did edit the ‘90s slightly, leaving out the dot-com collapse toward the end of that carefree decade and the recession it invited. He also brushed lightly over the obdurate fact terrorism hadn’t turned out to be just a nuisance after all. It has become the great test of our times, not something you can just heave a few missiles at now and then, or leave to the vice squad — like prostitution and illegal gambling.

As for the incumbent, he may have entered the presidency with much the same expectations Mr. Kerry now seeks to raise — the expectation of normalcy in times that are not normal. Remember the George W. Bush who opposed nation-building and foreign entanglements? He found himself humbled (and strengthened) one day. Specifically, September 11, 2001.

They say everything changed that day. Not really. It was just that everything we had thought/assumed/expected in the Golden ‘90s hadn’t been so. As president on September 11, Mr. Bush watched a burning Pentagon and realized it was no terrorist incident, but a world war. Some still haven’t caught on.

On the domestic front, Mr. Bush has grappled with all kinds of approaching crises — in Social Security, in Medicare, in education — and fashioned some real responses, or at least proposed some. His compromises may be imperfect, but they don’t just put the problem off for the next president.

Mr. Bush hasn’t pretended we can go on pretty much as we have before, as in the ‘90s, and all will be well. That is essentially what Mr. Kerry proposes, despite his plethora of plans that begin crumbling when examined even cursorily, especially with an accountant’s eyes.

Finally, this debate did say something about what matters most in a president: character. Mr. Kerry’s performance throughout these encounters has remained remarkably even. It’s that of a champion prep school debater. But when the curtain parts, a certain crassness appears. As when, Wednesday night, he mentioned the sexual orientation of the vice president’s daughter. That wasn’t necessary. And when he joked about marrying up, he seemed to mean it in only the material sense, and expected us to laugh with him.

In his second debate with Mr. Bush, the senator had looked around the room and immediately divided everybody into two classes: those who made more than $200,000 a year — he, the president and the moderator fit that category — and those who didn’t. Namely, everybody else. How did he know? And why would he want to mention it? Yes, a certain crassness emerges now and then. It is not assuring.

As for W.’s performance in these debates, it has not been at all even. It has ranged from the abysmal to the winning. But he has improved with each debate. The man learns. And he has clearly been listening to Miss Laura. When the curtain parts in his case, the swagger and smirk, which Texans call walking and smiling, disappear. And when he talks about the women in his life, he seemed to be speaking for every grateful husband and father. That’s when, as we say in these latitudes, he touched my heart. And if he didn’t touch yours, well, maybe you need to see a cardiologist.

If the president wins this election, it may be because of those times when he speaks not as a president or politician but as a man of faith, both humbled and strengthened by events, and wins a nation’s trust.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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