Through a glass, darkly

Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Watching the debate

Not one to watch conventions I managed to miss both the Democratic and Republican conventions but I found myself watching the presidential debates. While I find it difficult to explain why I can sit and watch a debate that is no less scripted than a convention, it remains true nonetheless.

I have been fascinated by presidential debates ever since I was a kid. I remember my parents watching the Kennedy-Nixon debate on the old RCA black and white television that had a metal cabinet, during the winter every time you got too close to it the static electricity generated by walking on the carpet discharged with a big SNAP! that stung little but surprised the daylights out of you.

I don't remember much whether my folks were for Nixon or Kennedy, but since they were both union I suspect Kennedy was their choice. Johnson was their favorite until he pulled out of the 1968 race, then a strange thing happened, my parents voted for the man they despised eight years earlier.

I can't say I blame them. I turned 18 in 1972, the first year 18-year-olds were allowed to vote in presidential elections. I registered to vote, and for the draft, and proudly went to the polls and pulled the lever (I was living in Kansas City, Kan. at the time and they had voting machines) for Nixon. Even back then I wasn't about to vote for some spineless whiner, which is what I thought of Eugene McCarthy.

I've watched several debates since then, the empty-chair debate which Jimmy Carter lost by default, the vice-presidential debate with Ross Perot's running mate, the inarticulate Admiral Stockdale thrashing around wildly, way out of his league, and many others.

There is usually one defining moment in each debate for me. My favorite moment of all the debates I've watched seems to be the favorite of many. It's when Ronald Reagan, often criticized for being too old to run, turns and says "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I won't hold my opponents youth and inexperience against him."

It's one of those things you remember, long after everything else fades from memory. I remember it so well because I had just heard a joke, an old chestnut even back then but one I hadn't heard before. A 95-year-old man marries an 18-year-old girl and at the reception a friend pulls him aside and asks him if he isn't a little concerned "that something might happen during the honeymoon night during sex, you know, something fatal?"

The old man lays his hand on his friends shoulder and says: "Don't concern yourself about what might happen, if she dies, she dies."

Any concerns about what might occur because of Reagan's age were put to rest, except for Democratic loyalists, by his handling of several crises. He proved able to handle the stress of the job and keep up with what was happening even after he was shot by a nutcase who had a thing for actress Jodie Foster.

After watching the debate between Gore and G. W. Bush in 2000 I came away with the impression that Gore looked like I imagined El Cid looked, after he died and they stiffened him up with 70 pounds of Damascus steel swords keeping him on his horse.

In other words he was as stiff as a board, and just about as interesting, and not nearly as heroic as the Spanish hero.

The thing I brought away from the first debate this year was that John Kerry's neck muscles must be extremely well developed. His noggin dominated the screen. It reminded me of some kind of 1950s horror movie, the only thing missing was some scientist in black glasses intoning about the dangers of radiation on the human skull and how it caused this mutation of the head so that the rest of the body just withers away because the head takes up all the nutrition. His cabeza was so gigantic it looked like it took all his energy just to lug the darned thing around.

George Bush on the other hand started the evening off looking pretty good but I have to admit after 30 or 40 minutes he looked like he was ready to slap Kerry back to reality. The facial gymnastics he went through didn't help his case and they distracted from what was being said.

I couldn't make it through the whole debate, I had to take a break halfway through but it appeared I didn't miss much in the interim because it seemed the two candidates were saying pretty much the exact same thing when I returned as they were saying when I headed for the bathroom. Kerry's head still looked like a helium balloon, his scrawny little neck didn't seem nearly able to support it.

Bush on the other hand looked like he'd reached the point where he wanted to see how high Kerry would bounce if he kicked Kerry in his Armani clad backside. Judging from Kerry's head, it'd probably be pretty high.