From the pages of
What becomes a debating candidate most? Preparation. And that preparation is not just about test tussles with surrogate opponents. Like boxers training for a championship bout - candidates watch tapes of their opponents slugging it out - and try to anticipate the moves and openings.
But George W. Bush is not just studying tapes of Gore in action. I have empirical evidence that Bush has probably been watching a lot of old Presidential debates for quite a while. A lot more than we think...
I say this with authority because I have good reason to believe that Dubya is a closet C-Span junkie.
In a recent exchange with journalists, George W. claimed that he watched little TV. The reference to his TV-viewing habits triggered recall of a seemingly trivial incident at Philadelphia airport the day after the GOP convention. In response to a run-of-the-mill "How are you doing?" question from an English-accented TV reporter (not me incidentally) - Bush suddenly confronted the journalist and acidly inquired whether he was the Englishman who'd called him "Hollow-Bush" on TV earlier that week. The reporter wasn't, was suitably baffled - and the moment passed. Some serious Nexus-Lexis research later revealed that another Brit HAD been on TV that week. He hadn't dubbed W. with the "Hollow-Bush" name - but he had been on camera at the precise moment when a member of the public telephoned in and used that nomenclature that so irritated Bush.
And what high-profile channel was it that carried this insignificant exchange? C-Span. And at an ungodly early hour of the morning. None of Bush's staff knew anything about this utterly minor exchange. But W did. He had obviously been niggled by it. Clearly C-Span is one of the presets on the Governor's remote control.
And THAT more than anything else may help George Bush's debate preparation.
You see, boring old C-Span has a secret. Its daytimes may be filled with endlessly dreary Congressional committee meetings - but at night it takes viewers on a Star Trek-like trip into the past. Just as Nickelodeon becomes Nick-At-Nite for baby-boomers craving sitcoms from the 50's and 60's - so C-Span has been unspooling hours of archival Presidential debates from the past 40 years. Call it Span-At-Nite.
And what viewers (including undoubtedly W.) see is compulsive viewing. We see how pivotal those massively-seen national debates have been. And we see the unmistakable moments when the losing Presidential candidate loses it in front of the nation...
In 1988, Michael Dukakis expressionless after Bernard Shaw asks him how he would feel about the death penalty if wife Kitty was raped and murdered. Dukakis turns it into a policy-wonk moment on crime statistics. (George Bush Snr. is more passionate in his defense of Dan Quayle two minutes later.)
In 1976, a stumbling Gerald Ford asserting the lack of Russian influence in Eastern Europe.... In 1984 a gray Fritz Mondale - looking like a refugee from a convention of CPAs... In 1980, Jimmy Carter tired and wan.... In 1996, Bob Dole befuddled and spent (perhaps Viagra-ed out...)
And - most tellingly of all - the 1992 debates.
Against an ebullient Bill Clinton - Master Of His Political Domain - George W. Bush's father (who had been President for four years at that point) looks like a neophyte. Arms and syntax flailing, he seems more like Dana Carvey's devastating caricature of him than the real man.
At that moment - George Bush Snr. had had nearly 30 years experience of public life including 8 years as Vice-President and 4 years as President. And STILL he looked like a doofus next to an energized political jock.
George W. has had a scant 5 1/2 years in public life. Al Gore is over 25 years into his political career. If Dubya has been watching C-Span lately as assiduously as he clearly was a few weeks ago - he has certainly seen those key debates and reflected on those pivotal moments.
Though he is comparatively young (53) in political terms - this is probably Dubya's one shot at the presidency. If he loses this election having been so far ahead of Gore for the best part of a year - and having raised more money than any previous candidate - there is no way that the gray eminences of the GOP will allow him a clear second run in 2004.
And W has not spent the 53 years since his birth - and certainly not the 13 years since his 're-birth' - to be denied the heritage to which he believes he is entitled - based upon a collective 4 1/2 hours of TV debates.
As much as his team furiously downplays the expectations, and elevates Gore into some silver-tongued Emperor of Sophistry - George W. Bush Jr. has seen the tapes of the presidential debates of the past 40 years. He has seen the losers and the winners. And make no mistake. He badly wants to be a winner.