Desperadoes

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.

Although his man may still be ahead, you can smell the strong scent of desperation in Karl Rove's campaign strategy as we head toward the final fortnight. Not content to slur the Democratic nominee's war record and call him a flip-flopper (when he is, more accurately, a weasel), the president has begun blasting his health plan as a "government takeover" (alas, it is not) and claiming in a new attack ad that Kerry believes terrorism to be just like prostitution or gambling—a straw man so bogus that even knock-kneed Aaron Brown torched it the other night. In fact, what Kerry actually said was perfectly sensible: "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance. I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it . . . to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life." Such sober words are far more reassuring than his Nixonian bull about having "a plan" for Iraq.

As if the president's dishonest election rhetoric weren't bad enough, he keeps shifting our nation's policies to make the situation favor his re-election. On October 11, the Los Angeles Times broke the front-page story that the administration plans to delay its inevitably bloody takeover of rebel-held cities in the Sunni Triangle until after November 2. This decision should surprise only the slow learners. As William Langewiesche notes in a superb article in the current Atlantic Monthly ("Welcome to the Green Zone: The American Bubble in Baghdad"), the timetable of events in Iraq was sped up and skewed to fit the president's electoral calendar—the political version of "duck and cover." I guess this is what Bush calls staying the course.

Meanwhile, back home, his people have been turning up the pressure on the media to stop dwelling on the negative in Iraq. Of course, given the invertebrate nature of so many editors and network executives, such pressure is largely superfluous:

"I wish I had a dollar for every time an editor told me to find a 'positive' story in Iraq," I was told by a photographer recently returned to the States after shooting the occupation for big weekly magazines. "They always want something upbeat. The last time, the editor said to me, 'We're building lots of schools in Iraq. Go shoot some photos of kids in a school.' So I went out looking for the shots he wanted. It took forever. I went to five different schools, and they were all these crumbling, terrible buildings. Finally, I found a brand-new school we'd built. It was brand-new, beautiful. Trouble was, there weren't any children in it. The day before, the building across the street had blown up, so now nobody wanted to come to the school." She sighed. "Things there are much, much worse than people realize."

At least until November 3.


Bookend: Flying home from the Midwest last weekend, I spent a merry two hours reading The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir. (What can I say? I was in an airport bookstore.) It was written by former Balanchine ballerina Toni Bentley, who could teach ABC's desperate housewives a thing or two about desperation. Genuinely daring in its self-exposure, stabs at philosophy and downright silliness, both witting and un-, her book is surely the greatest hymn to the transcendent powers of sodomy since the Marquis de Sade (or at least the original Devil in Miss Jones).

Early on, Bentley tells us, "I came to know God experientially, from being fucked in the ass—over and over and over again." If you didn't know better, you would swear you were reading the latest pro-Bush speech by onetime liberal Ron Silver.

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