The three Presidential debates were an eyeopener. For almost four years, Mr. Bush’s handlers have stage-managed every aspect of his public image. Nowadays, of course, every politician has a speechwriter, but the extent to which Mr. Bush is screened from a representative public—and the public is screened from the real Mr. Bush—has been unprecedented. He gives carefully rehearsed speeches in front of carefully selected audiences in carefully selected locations. To use the sports argot he favors, he only appears when the game is fixed.
. That near-total control of his public appearances has enabled the Bush team to craft the image they want—of a President who is tough but compassionate, resolute but good-humored, not an intellectual but full of common sense. And it has been enormously effective. Who wouldn’t want a President like that?
But when the fix isn’t in, when Mr. Bush has to face real questions or a real opponent, we get a look at the real George Bush. Which is like looking behind the curtain and discovering the real Wizard of Oz. Not a powerful, dominating presence, but a weak and shallow man, blown into larger-than-life dimensions by publicity machinery. Think back to the interview with Tim Russert, which even devout partisans admitted was a disaster. Look at the response to the first debate, where only 19% of those polled felt he was the winner.
The real George Bush, it turns out, is a whiner, not a winner. Nothing is ever his fault. If things went wrong, it was the Clinton administration’s fault. Or the CIA’s. Or Donald Rumsfeld’s. Not his. Never his.
Mr. Bush is also exposed as intellectually lazy. He can’t be bothered to try and understand complicated issues. His answers are bumper-sticker slogans, and he expects to get by with them. Nor will he think back over his past performance and learn from his mistakes. In fact, he can’t recall a single mistake he’s made. Not one. Apparently he is as infallible as the Pope, speaking ex cathedra.
The real George Bush, we discover, is not a commanding presence. He’s a nervous fumbler who squirms when questioned or criticized. He’s as programmed as an early robot, trotting out the same lines again and again. No matter that they don’t apply to a given issue or question. They’re all he has. He has no resources of his own, no reservoirs of knowledge or character to draw from. All he has is his script, and when the debate is unscripted or runs too long, he’s lost.
It may be that the election will turn less on issues than on the public’s perception of the candidates themselves. If that is the case, we have the debates to thank for showing us we’re living in Oz.
© Tony Russell, 2004