Bush lives in a bubble, it's true, surrounded by sycophantic, ideologically driven aides as he conducts the nation's business. On the campaign trail, too, he exclusively holds his rallies before adoring Republican loyalists: The audiences are carefully scrubbed of not only those who hold dissenting opinions, but also anyone insufficiently enthusiastic about the idea that the president is a striding colossus of a deeds-not-words he-man, vanquishing "the enemy" with a single squint of his steely gaze or one well-aimed tough-guy colloquialism. The undecided need not apply.
As September 30th's first presidential debate proved, Bush can't completely hide that the bad news created by his failed policies has pierced the bubble. He knows that Iraq, which he continues to disingenuously characterize as moving forward toward democracy and freedom, is in danger of coming apart at the seams. He knows his policy there is failing, and that the insurgency is growing to possibly irreversible proportions. And he fears, fundamentally, that Kerry is a better man than he is: tougher, smarter, more knowledgeable, more up to the "hard work" of the task at hand.
A true striding he-man, an actual true believer, would have been serene in the face of Kerry's reasoned criticisms. But Bush was rattled. The he-man, it turns out, is a bubbling cauldron of childish emotion. The debate revealed, in a very public way, that Bush the man is very different from Bush the political construct. The latter is a man of simple pieties and homespun virtues, a godly, flinty sort who knows exactly what he thinks and does exactly what he says. That Bush is a creature of unflinching principle, the exemplar of American frontier virtue. But that Bush is also a façade, a television-deep creation of political string-pullers and a compliant media.
My first, gut reaction to last Tuesday night's presidential debate was that Kerry bested Bush. But Kerry did not win so much as Bush lost. Bush beat himself. Before a single word was uttered, he was intimidated, flustered, and off his game because he fears that that he can't match up, either to his own overblown rhetoric or to his opponent. So much for unwavering certainty.
On the day before the debate, Bush joked about Kerry, "He probably could spend 90 minutes debating himself." It won him the expected guffaws from his hand-picked audience, but on Tuesday what we saw was the opposite: Kerry, despite being too clever by a half at times, does have a core of internal strength and fortitude, while Bush was the one reduced to trying--and failing--to squelch his own internal debate. The dark tendrils of self-doubt that Bush willfully suppresses in his public persona were written large on the surface planes of his face in his moments of stress. It was an off-putting sight.
Bush's weird expressions as the debate progressed--and particularly his excessive blinking as he tried to English his way out from behind the Iraq eight ball--are the hallmarks of someone confront- ing their own carefully constructed edifice of self-deception. At times he seemed momentarily paralyzed--that My Pet Goat deer-in-the-headlights look was unmistakable--and at others he smirked, or made prissy faces, or looked impatient and annoyed. He came across as a surly, confused teenager. He showed his emotional age.
Bush's demeanor was so at odds with his public image of unconflicted certitude that the DNC quickly spliced together an unflattering montage of his debate faces. America got a glimpse on Tuesday night of the roiling currents that reside just under the placid surface sheen of simple resolve, and it did not like what it saw. The artifice of Bush's self-fashioning was stripped bare.
The real Bush is, yes, nuanced. His inability to sit still for reasoned criticism is a sign of unplumbed depths. Just because he is unreflective does not mean he is uncomplicated. He is not immune to doubt, yet Bush's great fear is facing up to his own feelings of inadequacy.
Kerry is the perfect vehicle to bring these doubts out in Bush. At Yale, Kerry was a big man on campus, head of the Yale Political Union, while Bush was an academic loser and boozehound. Kerry fought in Vietnam, while Bush had strings pulled for him to get into the "Champagne Unit" of the Texas Air National Guard. It is hard to believe that every time Bush says he "honors" Kerry's military service, it doesn't cut him inside like a knife to the gut.
In the debate Kerry hit upon exactly the right tone. He could not have designed an approach more effective at playing to Bush's insecurities. Contradicting Bush coolly and rationally, rather than attacking him head on or bickering with him, is the perfect way to get under his skin. Let's hope we see more of this sort of firm, father-knows-best approach from Kerry on Friday.