Rating the debate

In the view of a number of students taking communications classes at Wayne State University, George Bush flunked last week’s debate, making the sort of mistakes anyone who has passed Public Speaking 101 learns to avoid.

To gain extra credit, about 700 students turned out to watch the verbal clash between Bush and Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry. Afterward, they broke into groups to evaluate the performances. I watched the debate with them, and afterward sat in on one of the groups. It was, well, instructive.

For one thing, I learned the term “communication apprehension.” Simply put, the president was nervous. There were signs, like the way he repeatedly reached for his water glass. And the omnipresent “ums.”

Even the few students in this group of 10 who identified themselves as supporters of the president had a hard time finding much to praise in his performance.

“I don’t think he was prepared,” said Ninous Golani, 18. In general, Golani thinks Bush has been “doing a good job” since taking office. But, as a student taking a public speaking class, even he had to admit the president’s performance was lacking.

On the other hand, the group agreed that Kerry appeared much more confident, displaying a command of an array of issues. For a man relentlessly portrayed as a “flip-flopper” by the Republicans, his demeanor sent a message of stability. The message sent by Bush, it seemed, was that he wanted to be anywhere but behind that podium addressing a television audience of 62 million.

There were times during the debate when Bush elicited unintentional laughs from the audience, whether it was that deer-caught-in-the-headlights look when hit with an unexpected question or the “You forgot Poland!” yelp he uttered when Kerry failed to name that country as being among the so-called coalition of the willing joining the United States in the war against Iraq, or when he declared, “Of course I know that Osama bin Laden attacked us.”

That’s reassuring.

But it wasn’t just in matters of style that Bush came up short. The students, in general, found the president’s presentation far less substantive than Kerry’s.

While Kerry consistently expanded the scope of the discussion that focused on Iraq and national security issues by inserting issues ranging from the Kyoto environmental treaty to health care, Bush time and again returned to the same few lines. How many times did America need to hear from the leader of the free world that the job of president is “hard work,” or that Kerry’s claim that we are involved in the “wrong war, wrong time, wrong place” sends a dangerous signal to our troops and allies?

“Bush just stuck to the same subjects and repeated the same things,” observed Lisa Zibizek, 18, a University of Detroit Mercy student who attended the event with a friend.

Or, as another student in the group observed, “Bush answered the questions without really answering them.”

Most in the group came into the debate already favoring Kerry, and the performances of the two candidates only served to reinforce their support.

Only one student, 19-year-old Brendon Barnes, said that he was undecided as to which candidate would receive his vote prior to the debate. When it was over, Kerry had won his support.

He’s not the only one swayed by the debate. Nearly every public opinion poll taken in the days after the contest shows Kerry, who had been trailing the president badly, surging as a result of the performances he and Bush provided. The president’s once-commanding lead has been transformed into a statistical dead heat. As a result, Kerry supporters who were beginning to despair that their man had all but lost the election have gained new hope.

As ABC News reported, “What a difference a debate makes. Days after President Bush and Senator Kerry squared off for the first time, Mr. Kerry is newly energized and his campaign appears to have gained ground.”

The next debate is this Friday, Oct. 8. If Bush is going to reverse Kerry’s momentum, he’s going to have to do something he didn’t do much of during his hard-partying days at Yale: learn his lessons.

Metro Times news editor Curt Guyette can be reached at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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