Democratic Underground

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 here.

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 enemies stronger.

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.

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