It's the Stupidity, Stupid
October 7, 2004
By John Steinberg
I can't say it wasn't fun to read the Republican hand-wringing
over George Bush's pathetic "performance" in the first Presidential
debate. But the pundits seem to have missed the fundamental story
A "performance" is what an actor gives. It is how meat puppets
with high school diplomas convince TV audiences they are doctors
or lawyers. But when the President of the United States is placed
out of reach of his stage handlers, speech writers and suck-ups
and asked to think on his feet, what you get isn't a performance.
What you get is reality.
And as America finally saw, the reality is that the most powerful
person in the world is a dolt.
Polling shows that Americans are finally beginning to see that
a President needs to be capable of more than rote repetition, that
being able to distinguish between Saddam and Osama might be important,
and that absolute certainty is a luxury purchased only at the cost
of the truth and many lives.
Bush has been the boy in the bubble for years - perhaps his whole
life. When insulated from inconvenient facts, probing questions
and the consequences of actions, the inability to think is easy
to hide. Limited grasp can be spun as plain speaking; limited reach
spun as focus on the big picture and rejection of evil nuance.
The press, too intimidated and lazy to challenge, agreed to treat
subtlety as a negative, and became co-conspirators in a massive
fraud. And so America lived in the comfortable illusion that the
scripted, orchestrated and insulated images of our swaggering cowboy-in-chief
had some basis in fact.
Bush's refusal to hold press conferences or give unscripted interviews
(and his doddering testiness when he is even slightly stressed)
were glossed over. But now, after Bush revealed himself to be a
petulant 6th-grader trying to match wits with an intelligent adult,
the public is finally catching on to the obvious: the stuff Karl
Rove packages is the performance; the dim bulb we saw in the Florida
debate is the reality.
The press is still far too timid to point out that the emperor
is naked as a jaybird. (To paraphrase Bill Maher, the networks should
all be fined for showing that much nudity in prime time.) The fact
that the polls turned on a dime shows that the media's ability to
control through spin is not absolute, and that their comical even-handedness
was unsuccessful in painting the debate as a war of equals.
Many conservatives are still in denial, but the wind has fallen
from their sails. I get the sense they are having a lot of "Bridge
on the River Kwai" moments - realizing, like Alec Guinness, that
their efforts in building the Bush edifice have only made America's
Kerry has to be careful about how he plays this, of course. He
can't call Bush a moron. He was able to walk a fine line in the
first debate, challenging without condescension or ridicule. He
can't move far from that line.
The rest of us, however, need to pressure the media to stop ignoring
the intellectually challenged elephant in the room - the fact that
our President is dumber than a fencepost.