Going mad inside the debate bubble

Halfway into last Sunday night's episode of ABC's campy Desperate Housewives—which had the trained ecstatics at Entertainment Weekly crying "Hosanna!" before the second episode even aired—Teri Hatcher's character, Susan, made a catty joke about her trampy rival, Edie, to the local busybody. "Oh, Susan," Mrs. Huber replied with cheery malice, "Edie may be trash, but she's still a human being."

I tried telling myself the same thing about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney during the first three televised debates, in which they set a record for peevy-faced snappishness. Normally, I relish watching presidential candidates go head-to-head, even though you generally get a more sophisticated level of argument on the Best Damn Sports Show Period. But this year, because I care deeply who wins, the debates are sheer torture—like the endless two minutes when John Kerry tried to placate a tremulous blond pro-lifer who wouldn't vote for him if he promised to legalize the adoption of stem cells. I haven't been this agonized watching TV since I was a little kid and had to flee the room for fear that Lassie wouldn't show up in time to save Timmy.

Kerry supporters aren't the only ones turning into a menagerie of twitches. Some of the most nervous post-debate commentary has come on Fox News, whose analysts (aside from Learjet diva Sean Hannity) have viewed the Republican ticket's performance with all the equanimity of Dodger fans appraising the team's starting pitchers. William Kristol and Brit Hume were clearly aghast at the president's stunning inability to defend the Iraq war (while praising his own moral certainty in launching it) and distressed by Bush's and Cheney's aggressively charmless body language, all grimaces, wringing hands and apelike hunching, which made even the scary-tan Kerry seem as debonair as Cary . . . make that Hugh . . . Grant.

In dissecting the debates, Fox has proved far shrewder than the fair-and-balanced squads at CNN, whose hedging liberal commentators make Kerry look as blunt as a cudgel, and out there on MSNBC, that small, nearly invisible planet where Joe Scarborough has his own country and front man Chris Matthews keeps imploding from his own hollow enthusiasm. While most of America was bored into a coma by Cheney's debate with Edwards, Matthews' panel of pundits (with the honorable exception of Ron Reagan) rushed to declare the vice president a knockout winner, oohing and aahing over his authoritative presence, chiding the yapping Edwards' "inexperience," and trying to predict which of Cheney's magisterial putdowns would make history's show-reel. They were blissfully unaware that, back here on Earth, Edwards was thought to have earned at least a tie, if not an outright victory, and Cheney's supposedly devastating gibe about never having met his opponent before that night's debate would promptly be exposed as a rhetorical flourish, er, lie. Roll tape, Brian Williams!

As usual, MSNBC's post-debate analysis revealed nothing about the event in question but spoke eloquently about its commentators' values. The scary truth is not that this ship of fools is manned by clandestine right-wingers (indeed, Scarborough flaunts his red neck as if it were filet mignon), but that Matthews and reporter Andrea Mitchell are depressing exemplars of the professional ethos of those who've spent too long inside the Beltway. Where most of America rightly recoils from guys like Cheney—a run-to-fat version of The Simpsons' Mr. Burns—this mean, paternalistic macher fills pundits with awe. (To be sure, Andrea's well-trained: She shares her marital bed with Alan Greenspan.) Bedazzled by the vice president's hushed tones and bureaucratic machinations, they view him with the cowed reverence Hollywood types once showed industry puppet master Lew Wasserman. Me, I wonder how anyone can be so wowed by the "experience" of a man who had two separate cracks at Iraq—a dozen years apart—and managed to get it wrong both times.

Then again, these are days when unreality has become so brazen—Sinclair Broadcasting is forcing 62 stations to show an anti-Kerry documentary, Stolen Honor, days before the election—you may wonder if you're being driven mad by some ghastly political version of Gaslight. Faced with the crushing Duelfer Report, which concluded definitively that Saddam did not have WMDs (and hadn't had them for several years before the invasion), President Bush insisted this proved he was correct to invade Iraq, The New York Times' faux-moderate columnist David Brooks claimed that the war saved us from "now living in [Saddam's] nightmare," and CNN's sheep in Wolf's clothing grilled Edwards about whether Duelfer's conclusions didn't show that Saddam was a threat—even though the report proved precisely the opposite.

In last Friday night's debate, Kerry dubbed the Bush administration's environmental policies "Orwellian." This weary allusion probably didn't win him a single vote—though can't you just picture Dennis Miller beaming with pride at knowing the ending of Animal Farm?—but I understand why he used it. After all, it's one thing to bend the facts during a campaign. Hell, Kerry's doing that himself when he says the Iraq war has already cost $200 billion (it'll actually take a few more months to get there). But it's another thing to campaign like Bush's Lone Star doublethinkers who snap facts like twigs, then use them as kindling to barbecue their opponents as the clock strikes 13.

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