I. Pregame Warm-Up
What a morning! On Meet the Press, the mad caricaturist’s match-up between the strangely feline James Carville, an R. Crumb creation out of Fritz the Cat, and, from the Bush camp, a gumdrop-eyed man named Charles Black who evoked Dondi as a 45-year-old. Between them was beaming Tim Russert, watching as Mr. Carville pistol-whipped Mr. Black, who just kept blinking. Next door on Face the Nation, we had a made-for-TV movie in which Bush spokeswoman and Carville girlfriend Mary Matalin mud-wrestled Clinton spin-mistress Mandy Grunwald, who kept smiling and calling the Bush campaign “sad.” This was a fairer fight, due partly to Ms. Matalin’s wildcat passion and her determination to leave no eye unthumbed. By the time, back on NBC, that Mr. Russert asked Mr. Carville to say something nice about Mr. Bush (an invitation that the hypnotic Mr. Black took to be sincere), Mr. Carville sloe-eyed across the channels to CBS and said, “anyone who Mary Matalin likes that much, there must be something good there.”
By 11:30 on the Brinkley show, Labor Secretary Lynn Martin had practically hurled herself physically onto Mr. Clinton’s communications director George Stephanopoulos. It was Carol Burnett versus Jerry Seinfeld. At the end of the show, there was only smoking ground where the two had sat. The frantic determination of the Bushicans presages doom.
II. What We Didn’t See
Before the first debate, the Bush forces fought to have the President walk in on camera while Mr. Clinton and Ross Perot awaited him at their podiums. The President lost the coin toss.
Howard Stringer, the president of CBS Broadcast Group and former president of CBS News, decided to broadcast the American League baseball playoffs in Oakland, which was strolling toward extra innings. Mr. Stringer called it a “Faustian bargain of epic proportions” and watched the debate himself. Somewhere, Dan Rather was chewing and spitting out wallpaper.
III. What We Saw
A long camera shot of a blue background. Two tall men in dark suits. One short man with a big head. Remember: Great men in television tend to have big heads.
We’re into it. First: Immediately, it’s Ross’ show. Mr. Perot is a television master. Now I don’t know if any of you saw his half-hour buy that beat out the baseball playoffs a week earlier. It was fascinating television. It was just about the best ad anybody’s done in years and years: direct, heavy-voltage, pithy, no visual crap, lots of reading cards. I mean, you can see at once why this boy fired Hal Riney’s ass out of Dallas: He doesn’t need all kinds of Morning in America visual music on the screen when he’s got this kind of videogenic power: This isn’t politics, it’s performance art. That big head, that haircut, that diction, that syntax – it’s to B-School talk what nuclear fuel is to popguns, it’s Sam Walton and the In Search of Excellence gang to the tenth power, and it’s a hell of a thing that H.R.P. dropped out on July 16, 1992 because if he hadn`t given Bill Clinton that little gift, this would have been one different campaign.
As it was, Ross owned the night. “If we can’t love one another we ought to get along with each other. And if you can’t get fair, just recognize we’re all stuck with one another because nobody’s going anywhere, right? Now, that ought to get everyone back up to let’s get along together and make it work.” Mr. Perot is Ronald Reagan’s television equal, at least in close shots.
Second: Uh-oh! Bill Clinton’s really John Bradshaw! This is pretty interesting, since we support him, and even though we’ve had boring Presidents before, we’ve never had self-help Presidents. So this is what he does on the air. He is, among other things, purposefully calming – a soporific. He conveys self-taught inner worth. His attacks are gentle, never personal, and his self-defense is that of the universally aggrieved: “You were wrong to attack my patriotism. I was opposed to the war but I love my country and we need a President who will bring it together.” That’s political context but it’s family talk. He has a calming effect, Bill Clinton, like a counselor in some kind of program, and he uses Alcoholics Anonymous and psycholanguage — when he talks about Roger or in defining insanity as “just doing the same old thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” Mr. Clinton has bedroom eyes, all right, but the kind that get you ready for dreamland. With his yawny cracked voice and his puppy pouches, he usually looks as though somebody dropped Sominex in his Coke. He is self-validated, and that comes through.
On the air, the prespinners had said that all he had to do was eat lozenges and avoid mistakes, and he did. But he did more than that. Mr. Clinton is the Great Synthesizer. On the campaign trail, he ate his dead: Bob Kerrey went down and Mr. Clinton picked up a couple of protectionism and New Generation lines; Paul Tsongas went down and Mr. Clinton absorbed an economic plan; Jerry Brown keeled and Mr. Clinton took up the 1-800 number. Layer upon layer of pudge swathes his political corpus, but underneath there seems to be at least an inner child of great friendliness and intelligence who inhales information and affection and exhales decency, if not strength. Although, for the cameras, Mr. Clinton appropriated President Kennedy’s thumb-on-the-knuckle hand-movement of enumeration and emphasis, this will not be a crisp, precision-oriented New Frontier. It will be the New Interior. Get ready for the press conference as search for inner self.
Third: The President conceded. Mr. Bush had a choice to make, and he knew what it was. He could make a big noise or he could pretend he was finishing up his second term and deliver a valedictory, which is what he did. He’s been through these things before. In 1988, Roger Ailes prepared him for the cameras by bumping chests with him and calling him a wimp until Mr. Bush snarled. He at least broke a sweat. Sunday night, Oct. 11, he was distant, suave, as though addressing CEO’s. But Bob Woodward’s Washington Post series had hit, revealing nervous, scurrying aides, and suddenly Mr. Bush had the slightly lonely look of Gary Cooper in High Noon: Where are my deputies? There was no reach out into the camera, no pith and vinegar, no weird fizz (although he did scratch his nose when he brought up cocaine). Calm, detached, not unappealing for him, he chose not to foam. He had aggressive choices, but having been chastened from going for Big Bill’s throat, he had nowhere else to go. It was as if someone had said to him: It’s over; start running for ex-President. His tone was self-establishing, almost wistful. “Some say, well, you’re a little old-fashioned. Maybe I am,” he said. When he introduced the James Baker-as-deputy-President number, it was clearly Mr. Baker’s payoff for leaving the State Department: not a last-minute vote-getting gambit but a positioning of Mr. Baker as the Stop Quayle-Buchanan-Kemp for 1996, starting with a spotlight-grabbing economic address by the deputy President.
No Harry Truman here. Mr. Bush didn’t wheel on the Democrats: No bite, no edge in his voice. Hand messing around in one pants pocket, it was truly a screw-em-if-they-don’t-want-me performance; he neither implored nor seduced the camera. When Doro Bush, whose divorce he had publicly regretted in his family values aria, came up to him at the end, it was with the sad look of resignation we’ve come to know in departing Presidential daughters. As she came up to him among the crowd that rolled onto the stage, the only question beginning to form was: Will the Library be in Kennebunkport or Houston? Probably at Rice, don’t you think?
IV. “I’ve never felt that opera was a good place to serve up reality.” -Philip Glass
And it wasn’t opera, neither musical enough nor nutty. Nor was it reality, particularly. It was kind of an atonal cantata. After the show, Jim Baker came to Tom Brokaw and spun Presidential; Al Gore said that Mr. Bush had finished fourth, behind Jim Lehrer. David Gergen looked mournful, Mark Shields said that Mr. Bush had handled it like a press conference, not a debate. The brightly lit common people hauled in by ABC couldn’t conceal a smile when they began talking about Ross. ABC’s pulse poll showed Mr. Perot had a big night. It was television, needless to say, and three men projecting versions of themselves they wanted seen. But the thing I forgot to bring up was, Did You see that catch that Mike Bordick made in Oakland on CBS at 8:03? It didn’t save the game for the Athletics, but it was one hell of a catch.
The Canadian team won.