These days, you can’t just watch the debates – you have to put them in context with each of the last ones, add daily news spin, subtract rhetoric and multiply by the number of times your favourite candidate wears a red tie. Half the time, you could lose the thread of the conversation by simply watching the non-speaking candidate on his half of the splitscreen trying not to make the sorts of faces his handlers have done all but call the plastic surgeons in to correct.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been looking forward to each of the debates much the same way I used to look forward to new episodes of The Partridge Family way back when – right down to putting in a quick call to my girlfriend to see if she also saw Keith’s pimples or the little fleck of spittle adorning the right corner of Bush’s pursed little sneer. (She did.)
Last night’s was probably the most substantive and the most boring. At this point, I know so much on each of their positions (domestic and foreign) from the debates themselves, daily scrutinizing of the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Toronto Star and Page Six of The New York Post (for the all-important behind the scenes snippy gossip about the presidential daughters) and of course the only credible news source on Anerican television these days (TM) - The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (sponsored now by the venerable State Farm Insurance - no kidding...) that what I really want is for one of them to have an on-air meltdown, or simply shudder to an exhausted, stumbling halt like a wind-up toy coming unwound.
I’m even beginning to know the lies. With a little help from the pundits and fact checkers during the debriefing segment following the debates, I’ve come to recognize the Kerry fact-fudging when it comes to what percentage of taxpayers pay what percentage of taxes, to Bush’s outright obfuscation on Kerry’s senate record. Either way, it’s a pointless exercise, as accurate facts end up being shrouded in the same fog of uncertainty that cloaks the crap; in this as in a number of sadly predictable ways, the campaigns are running neck and neck.
On points, I – like most of quick polls moments after the final time we were to see the Kerry’s and the Bush’s greet and air kiss each other like long lost relatives at a family rebellion – felt Kerry won the third and final set-to. He would have done better, particularly after a few fine spiritual moments (things that make you go “sniff”) over the separation of church and state, had Bush’s pass/fail performance expectations not been based almost entirely on whether the President would be able to control himself enough not to stamp his little foot when vexed.
But there were a few deviations from the script, and sadly, I have to give most of them to Bush. Though I wouldn’t put him in the same category as a Bob Hope or a Jerry Seinfeld, he was able to get off a few good ones, though only - it should be noted - when they were about himself. Sarcasm, as I’m sure everyone’s mother has oft reminded them, is the lowest form of humour; in a debate with an audience forbidden to laugh, it falls flatter than a two dollar perm.
But I couldn’t help myself from chuckling as toward the end of the evening he began to punctuate his answers repeatedly with little staccato desk thumpings; he’d clearly been told that to slam the desk with cockroach-killing intensity wasn’t likely to play well, so his weak mechanical little slaps looked like nothing so much as a wind-up toy monkey beating a tin drum. No one with features that elicit the description of ‘simian’ should ever risk either a tiny red fez or anything that could be compared to timpanic accompaniment. Trust me on this.
In juxtaposition, there is nothing – I repeat nothing – funny about Kerry. Still wooden –though miles ahead of his Night of the Living Dead routine from just a few short weeks ago – his speech and delivery is now much more human and personal, whilst still maintaining a degree of articulateness that falls just short of superhuman. But there’s always the dead giveaway of the body in motion: an elbows fair stitched to the body wood-chopping action, interspersed with palms up backing and forthing and measuring and indicating and finger counting that will not have to be altered or exaggerated one single whit once they are transferred straight to whatever comedian will be parodying him this weekend on Saturday Night Live. The man’s a stiff. Deal with it.
So here we are at the end. The polls suggest pretty much a dead heat. The three major states up for grabs (Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio) all have a number of variables that are making the outcome far from a gimme for either candidate. The undecided’s are either some of the dopiest voters ever to be polled (could the two Presidential hopefuls be more opposite?) or opportunists looking for airtime. So there’s only really the company each keeps as a wild card factor – and there I am more certain than ever: the stiff brings optimism, dedication, intelligence, enthusiasm and a can-do attitude which until recently seemed to have all but gone out of style.
But the monkey brings the organ-grinder. And if the polls are tied about everything else, on this they are daily more convincing than ever: quite enough bodies and limbs and minds and organs have been ground up since the 43rd president and his Vice President took office. Whatever you think about education, jobs, the economy and a woman’s right to choose, most people now agree that the killing has simply got to stop.