Tuesday, September 28, 2004

As the first debate looms, people are getting edgy. Bush’s supporters hope this will be the last hoop he has to leap through before victory. Kerry loyalists see it as his last chance before defeat.

Although presidential debates are a recent phenomenon, emerging at the beginning of politics’ modern television age, there is something medieval about their presentation.

Two princes meet in a clearing surrounded by their courtly entourage — to engage in single combat to the death. The winner’s clan will gain the castle and all the riches therein. The loser’s men will meekly wander off into the forest and await the coming of a new, stronger leader.

In the days leading up to the deadly joust, each champion’s men have carefully sharpened their master’s sword, and tested the flexibility and strength of his silver arrow-tipped lance. The strongest of his loyal soldiers have let him test his mettle against them in practice runs. They have sewn his garments with the finest golden threads and massaged exotic balms into his well-tanned body. On the morn of the deadly duel, each prince’s lady offers to her consort a silken sash to wear for luck. (Wives have always been picking out their husbands’ ties for special occasions.)

As the warriors enter the clearing, there is nothing left for their men than to clang their swords against their shields to hearten their lord and confound his adversary. Then, silence, as the battle tocsin’s clang announces the start of a battle fought by ancient and complicated rules of engagement. Where to start, how far to advance, when a combatant may dismount to finish with sword what he started with lance-thrust. If the winner is to gain the rewards of victory, he must be seen to have fought according to the rules.

We can almost see Sir Joe of Lockhart sneaking into the opponent’s stables the night before to cut the tendons of Prince George’s steed. Or Dan, the Baronet Bartlett, craftily telling Black Prince John’s men not to worry: “For my own good Lord hath barely ever ridden in such contests, and knows not the artifice of combat. Rest easy tonight, for tomorrow, you shall surely sleep in the castle’s soft sheets.”

It’s all quite charming — this drama of the first debate as presented by the courtly class of pundits, jesters and fools. But if history is any guide, Thursday night’s joust will not be the decisive element in the presidential campaign — because the voters are not the damned fools that journalists think they are.

Most Americans have been following this campaign quite closely for a very long time. Probably about 95 percent already have reached their conclusions. They have taken the measure of each of the candidates and the tentative results are in. About 50 percent won’t vote for Mr. Kerry, and about 45 percent won’t vote for Mr. Bush.

The remaining undecided — the most feeble-minded, inattentive and easily distracted of the voting population — will be subject to almost any little irrelevancy — perhaps even a debate, or the effects of a Mexican dinner the night before Election Day.

But for those Kerry supporters who believe George Bush led us into war for oil because he is owned by Halliburton and the House of Saud, no clever repartee by the president Thursday night will change their mind.

And, for those Bush supporters who believe that John Kerry is a craven, opportunistic, unprincipled, gold-digging, stuffed-shirt rich snob who betrayed his fellow soldiers when he came back from Vietnam and has no stomach now to win the war in Iraq, there is nothing left for Mr. Kerry to say except: goodbye. Actually, this category probably includes more than a few hold-your-nose loyalist Democrats.

Presidential debates tend to confirm an election trend — not reverse it. Ronald Reagan had gained steadily all year against the calamitous Jimmy Carter. The debate merely confirmed the public’s inclination to kick Mr. Carter out and hire Mr. Reagan.

Jerry Ford’s clumsy debate discussion about Poland’s alleged liberty only confirmed his image as a stumblebum who regularly fell down stairs, hit golf balls into crowds far from the fairway, and most clumsily of all was Watergate Nixon’s selected boy. From the day Nixon resigned in 1974, no serious Republican really expected to hold the White House in the next election. How else could a fool such as Jimmy Carter get elected president, if it weren’t preordained?

Even the storied Kennedy/ Nixon debate only confirmed an instinct for change. After eight gray, avuncular Eisenhower/ Nixon years, two recessions and a sense of exhaustion, Nixon’s un-made-up gray pallor played right into Kennedy’s seeming youthful vigor and call to get the country moving again. Would a lively, cheerful Nixon have made any difference? Would such a thing have been possible?

The trend in this election is clear. Despite (or perhaps, because of) all the great issues facing our weary, bleeding old world, this election is about character. By a small majority, the American public will have considered Mr. Kerry and rejected him for lack of presidential character. They just don’t trust him to lead us through the mortal storm in which we are engulfed. Mr. Kerry’s measure has been taken, and been found wanting.

No clever, last-minute words can change that national judgment, any more than a woman can be persuaded by strict logical argument to fall in love. It is not open to debate.

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