The week before last Thursday night's first of the 2004 presidential debates we heard a lot about the limitations of this tightly packaged quadrennial ritual: how it isn't truly a debate, simply an opportunity for multiple sound bites; how it is highly unlikely to ever produce a clear-cut winner or loser, and so on.
Then John Kerry came out and landed a haymaker right to the point of George Bush's chin and the rollercoasters that are this year's polls of the likely voters took yet another 180 degree turn.
When the smoke cleared, the spinning slowed and the numbers got fully crunched, it was clear that not only had the first of this year's trio of joint appearances by our two presidential candidates kept Kerry's candidacy viable (what many pundits predicted was the best he could hope for), it had actually shot him back into the lead in many polls.
Oh, the immediate feedback from the talking heads was predictable. Neither man had put the other one away, the mainstream pundits said. Both had seemed to have done a good job presenting their views.
But within minutes the viewing public across the country reacted in a far different way. Republicans were defensive and cautious yet had no intention of reducing their support for their standard bearer (of course). Democrats were effusive. Their challenger had won the bout handily. They were energized. They smelled an upset.
The president had been reduced at one point to a five-second, deer-in-the headlights stare straight into the camera while he searched for something to say. He repeatedly whined that, "This is hard work." The more charitable of the pundits wondered if maybe he was up past his usual bedtime and if fatigue might not have set in. And this was the topic—foreign affairs—that had been judged to be his strongest.
Ahead for Mr. Bush lie the perilous waters of domestic affairs (his performance in this area in the judgment of poll respondents lags far behind his handling of the war on terror) and (curses, why did we ever agree to it?) a dreaded "Town Hall" format where the answers can't be written down ahead of time the way they were for the last one.
Still, despite the upbeat mood in the Kerry camp, this election is far from over. The Republican dirty tricksters are never more dangerous than when cornered, and you know Karl Rove will soon begin diverting attention away from Dubya's painful performance in the full glare of the national spotlight with one of his patented October "surprises."
And, of course, plague us with a lot more of the inflammatory television ads that have made this campaign set new record lows for ethics and issues exploration and new highs for mendacity and obfuscation.
This brings me to the film Going Upriver, the Long War of John Kerry. It is very informative about many of those ads. This is a documentary film biography of John Kerry that focuses on his Vietnam service and his activity as a leader of the Vietnam Vets Against the War.
It was made by George Butler, a close friend of Kerry's, so don't expect to learn anything negative about the candidate. Even so, it was good to see actual footage of the events, revealing just how distorted a picture of Kerry has been painted by the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth.
His testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when seen in its entirety and in context, looks quite different from the cut-and-splice hatchet job of those commercials.
Similarly, his participation in a ceremony in which hundreds of soldiers tossed away the combat medals they'd earned in a war that they had come to feel was a betrayal, not a defense, of liberty, looks like the personal statement of opposition it was intended to be, not the virtual treason the Swift boat ads claim.
What was perhaps most chilling to learn was that the Swifties actually began in the Nixon White House. Threatened by the publicity that Kerry's leadership of the veterans was earning, Nixon conspired with Chuck Colson, John Haldeman and others in his inner council to find some dirt on this Kennedy look-alike.
When they couldn't, they went out and recruited John O'Neill. And they set about pumping up this geeky but articulate young man as a returned Swift boat officer who'd served, like Kerry, in Vietnam, yet one who supported continuing the war. O'Neill made the talk show circuit, debating with Kerry. It should not surprise us to find him rejoining the fray 30 years later as part of the Nixon dirty tricks legacy that lives on in Karl Rove's fertile brain.
The best result of the first debate was that the thousands of newly-registered Democratic voters, some of whom had begun to wonder what the point of voting was when Bush seemed to have it sewn up and Kerry wasn't inspiring confidence, now have been kick-jumped out of their torpor. The pendulum has definitely swung.
Mute the ads. Forget about Fox News, who as recently as Friday featured John O'Neill on one of their top-rated "fair and balanced" talk shows. Go see Going Upriver if you can—and especially, watch the next two debates. This is getting interesting!