“I just know how this world works.” – George W. Bush

For all the talk of history being made in Florida (not again!), the first of three debates between US presidential contenders George W. Bush and John Kerry may go down in history as “The Attack of the Split Screen.”

Some people may be naive enough to believe that a 90-minute reality show, a rhetorical Gladiator meets Miss Universe (Don’t move! Don’t sweat! Don’t stray away from script!), live from Florida, with Fox News controlling the video cameras, is remotely similar to participatory democracy. But as the rules of the game go, this is what is actually deciding the destiny of US democracy – and US projection of power over the rest of the world.

The original script as designed by the narrow, ideological right-wing cult that is the Bush administration machine should have been a Hail Mary to Bush’s supposed abilities of commander-in-chief in times of war. Bush consigliere James Baker even bent Democratic operative Vernon Jordan into accepting a 32-page “memorandum of understanding” worthy of the Surrealist Manifesto: no controversy, no confrontation, no real debating, just manufacturing of consent (sample: “The candidates may not ask each other direct questions, but may ask rhetorical questions”).

According to another rule, “There will be no TV cutaways to any candidate who is not responding to a question while another candidate is answering a question.” In true Monty Python fashion (“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”), nobody was expecting the split screen. But doing without it would have made very boring TV. So Fox News, generating the images and cutaway shots, perhaps inadvertently delivered to the world The Smirking Robot: the president of the United States lip-smacking, smirking, blinking, eye-rolling, performing anguished jazz solos of facial contortions, and looking genuinely angry. His voice was petulant. He barely remembered his own record. He said absolutely nothing new. And he could barely disguise his rage: How could anyone even dream of questioning and holding him to account for his foreign-policy choices – in the “war on terra” and in Iraq? After all, “I just know how this world works.”

Spinning to death

Whatever the merits of the “debate,” the perception of a winner is shaped by the larger-than-life spinning machine. And the ghosts in the corporate machine, many of them reluctantly, are almost unanimous: even with the absence of any knockout punches, Kerry won – in style and in substance. Most instant polls confirm it. Fox itself had to admit that Kerry looked like a commander-in-chief (one possible reason for why he never looked at the camera is because he was genuinely amused looking at the smirking president).

Bush told Americans what political adviser Karl Rove and his minions think Americans want to hear. So the usual catalogue of inaccuracies, blunders and endless repetition – recited by a real tough guy – was on show: “The Taliban are no longer in power”; “of course we’re after Saddam Hussein, I mean bin Laden”; “our coalition is strong”; “we’re making progress”; “it’s hard work”; “you cannot change positions in this war on terra”; “the enemy attacked us” (referring to Saddam Hussein); “trying to be popular in a global sense makes no sense.” And of course the key mantra of the night: Kerry’s “missed mexages” (sic).

Kerry, for many looking surprisingly presidential, was cool, calm, collected and – even more surprising – concise. He was visibly thinking, not only criticizing Bush’s blunders but detailing how to be “smarter on how to wage the war on terror,” telling the real story on North Korea and making the crucial flat statement, on the record, that really distinguishes his policy from the Bush neo-conservatives: “We have no long-term designs on Iraq.”

The Iraqi resistance decided to commemorate the debate with some real-life input, making it one of the bloodiest and most horrific days since the invasion with the death of 35 children by a car bomb. Apart from non-stop “free Iraq” rambling, Bush simply had no ammunition to contradict reality. Even the Special Operations Consulting Security Management Group, a private firm, has compiled more than 2,300 attacks in Iraq for the past 30 days, stressing that most of the country is in chaos – contrary to the version spun by Bush and dancing-bear-prime minister-without-a-parliament Iyad Allawi. US Secretary of State Colin Powell was forced to admit that the insurgency is booming. Now even the Green Zone – the supposedly impregnable American Mesopotamian fortress – is attacked on a daily basis. Kerry quoted the National Intelligence Council (NIC), in mid-September, saying that the resistance could lead Iraq to a “civil war on the short term” and on the absolute best scenario the country could reach something of a “difficult stability” in 18 months.

Pollster James Zogby says Kerry “is a candidate who gets about 45-47% of the vote just by showing up.” His performance in the first debate puts him back in the race with a vengeance. Kerry is always comfortable when he’s the underdog. But what happened in Florida lowers the expectations for Bush tremendously – and the smirking president is at his best when expectations are very low.

Little did Fox News, or the other networks that used it, know the split screen is the metaphor of this election. The Bush you see on-screen – the “likable” tough guy – is not the Bush you see off-screen – a very different figure – as much as the Bush “war on terra” has nothing to do with the tragic realities on the ground. But there’s the rub: do Americans prefer to deal with a man who “knows how the world works” because God told him so, or do they want a thinking man? Do they want to live in reality, or seek refuge in a reality show?


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