Bush league debate

Few things are more satisfying than seeing smug and slimy people outsmart themselves. That’s what happened in the first presidential debate.

There are few worse dangers than believing your own horse exhaust, but that’s just what the Bush campaign did. For months, they had been flooding the airwaves with vast distortions of John Kerry’s character, creating the public perception that he had the spine of overcooked macaroni.

By last week, you might have thought he wouldn’t be able to stand by himself. Some probably expected him to come out and begin speaking French.

Even worse, it was clear that the wildly overrated Karl Rove and Co. had began to believe their fairy tales about the Shrub being a strong and confident leader, fully on top of his game. Someone did, indeed, take the precaution of making the Leader of the Free World memorize fact-and-slogan packages.

But according to accounts that have since leaked from the White House, Bush didn‘t work very hard at preparing for the debate. Nor does he like vigorous challenges, so insiders say the Shrub mostly just batted things around with his flattering staff. What followed was a disaster for the Bushies.

Suddenly, the 62 million or so Americans who watched were able to see, to their surprise, that John Kerry was a commanding presence — forceful, articulate and intelligent — someone who seemed, well, presidential.

Worse, they saw George W. Bush plain, without filters. It wasn’t very pretty. Much of the time, he did look like what the Web sites call him: a smirking chimp, slightly hunched over, forced to wear a suit for the occasion, and seemingly resentful that he could neither smack his lips nor scratch in public.

When it came to substance, they saw a narrow little man, angry that his policies were being questioned, but who completely failed to explain them other than to repeat slogans and to insist that a real leader never changes his mind, even in the face of new information.

Many of the questions he ignored, stubbornly repeating the themes he had been given to memorize. On the very few occasions when he departed from the text, it was appalling. “Osama bin Laden doesn’t get to decide our elections,” he said at one point. What was most interesting was his constant repetition that the presidency was “hard work,” as if he resented that.

That’s not surprising. Hard work, the Bush family always has felt, was for the help. After a day of stonewalling and trying to convince a usually obedient press that Bush had somehow won, even Republicans were conceding by week’s end that he’d come off “shallow,” and that Kerry had shown depth.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the election is in the bag for Kerry, or anything like it. George Bush may do better in this Friday’s Town Hall debate, if he gets some sympathetic softball questions from listeners.

Yet the nation saw who the candidates really are last week. Many Americans who were skeptical of the war in Iraq all along may be disturbed that Kerry promised to “win” the war in Iraq, which seems ridiculous to anyone paying attention.

Politically, he can do nothing else. Winning can mean many things, but most of all it means a willingness to recognize reality. Leadership also requires many things, but it is essential that any great leader must be able to recognize that he or she is only human, and that means sometimes you make mistakes.

What you have to do is learn from them — and sometimes admit publicly that you are wrong. What was clear on the stage in Miami is that George Bush II, more than any other major league politician I can remember, is psychologically incapable of admitting that he has ever been wrong about any policy decision.

Nor has he any grasp of the reality of Iraq. As Farnaz Fassihi, a Wall Street Journal reporter in Baghdad, wrote in a letter widely circulated on the Internet last week, “despite President Bush’s rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster. If under Saddam it was a ‘potential’ threat, under the Americans it has been transformed to ‘imminent and active threat,’ a foreign policy failure bound to haunt the United States for decades to come.”

This election remains very much in doubt. What is beyond doubt after the debate, however, is that the result matters more than any election in memory.


African Town: All of the usual suspects have been weighing in on the proposal to create a blacks-only business district to be known as African Town. When it happened, I was giving a lecture in Farmington Hills and a lady named Eve Boicourt asked me about it. I told her that she must be mistaken; I couldn’t believe City Council would have passed anything that sounded that nutty.

But, of course, it did, and it has created another bitter divide, with much of the reaction unfortunately being racial. While I still think the idea is not a good one, and is almost certainly unconstitutional, I understand where its supporters are coming from. Forty years ago, Malcolm X said American blacks had no hope unless they learned to become entrepreneurial. Today less than 1 percent of all the businesses in the nation are African-American-owned.

What Detroit needs, apart from fewer shootings and guns and more schools that work, is money and jobs, regardless of who provides them.

What we should be asking are questions like: Will African Town lure more money into the city? Will it make businesses more likely to invest in Detroit and bring money and jobs here? Greektown worked in large part because there are few Greeks, and they were seen as sort of exotic. Frankenmuth works as a tourist attraction because virtually none of us live a traditional German lifestyle.

However, the vast majority of Detroiters are black. They aren’t exactly a novelty. Would a business zone built with a loan fund that excludes other ethnic groups be good for Detroit? Answer that, and you’ll know whether it can succeed.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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