My old debate and public speaking teacher, the late Rollin Osterweis, would have judged this year's first presidential debate - perhaps with an edge to President Bush. Osterweis taught both Bush and John Kerry at Yale; he was a stickler about content and delivery. Thursday night Bush won on the former, Kerry on the latter.
Professor Osterweis used a number of rhetorical maxims. One was: introduction, three main points, peroration, and conclusion. Another was: Tell the listener what you're going to tell him, say it, and tell him what you've said. Because Bush was true to those maxims, he got slightly the better of things.
Kerry was all style: better inflection, better rhythm, better tone - maybe generally better lines. But it is hard to beat Bush's "The only thing my opponent has been consistent about is his inconsistency." The line is memorable and goes to the matter of substance: Kerry could not prevail on substance because he possesses so little. There is not a whole lot of there there.
On delivery, Bush frequently was more halting, more tentative, but his audience is the U.S. electorate - and the vast multitude of the electorate, the common man, has a Labrador's nose for the phony and the fake. It prefers straight talk, and senses the snake oil in the slick. Bush was locked-on. Kerry was at once too often over the head of his audience and all over the map.
And for good reason.
Here's a man who has termed Iraq a "grand deception" and "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time." He has termed the nation's 30 or so allies a "coalition of the coerced and the bribed." He said on a recent talk show that whether the war is "worth it" can be determined only by its outcome. Such comments alone make him, in the words of the title of the current bestseller, unfit for command - i.e., unsuitable, unqualified to be commander in chief of the United States.
Bush said Sept. 10, "If (Kerry) had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power and would still be a threat to the security and to the world." Noting that Kerry voted to authorize force in Iraq but now sees the war as "wrong," Bush added that Kerry has taken "more different positions (on Iraq) than all his colleagues in the Senate combined." He repeated that "mixed message" line Thursday.
In the debate, Kerry responded (a) "I've never wavered in my life," but (b) "certainty" can get you in trouble. And when moderator Jim Lehrer asked of Kerry: "You've repeatedly accused President Bush, not here tonight but elsewhere, of not telling the truth about Iraq - essentially of lying to the American people about Iraq; give us some examples of not telling the truth," Kerry answered, "Well, I've never, ever, used the harshest word as you just did."
Wrong - at least twice. On Sept. 20, 2003, in Claremont, N.H., Kerry said: "This administration has lied to us. They have misled us. And they have broken their promises to us." And on Dec. 8, 2003, the Boston Globe reported: "Kerry also told a New Hampshire newspaper editorial board Friday that Bush had 'lied' about his reasons for going to war in Iraq, a word Kerry has been reluctant to use publicly for months. Yesterday he said he did not plan to use the word again."
In debates (and to the extent these exercises are, in fact, debates), the winner tends to be the one who stays on message and speaks with sincerity in language understood by (and used by) his audience. Bush is hardly glib. Yet he shares not only the language but the principles and conservative values of the majority of American voters. So it is easy for him to project as sincere.
Kerry is caught between his leftist values and their rejection by a lopsided plurality of the electorate, which describes itself as conservative. The liberal trying to sound the moderate he is not, has to speak on all sides of the issues - and thereby presents as a vacillating purveyor of mixed message. He comes across as too slick by half. Professor Osterweis - the delivery and content man - likely would tell Kerry he cannot sell himself as sincere if he lacks the courage to speak his convictions.
That is perhaps Kerry's foremost campaign-trail problem, as formulated by the late novelist John Marquand in "Sincerely, Willis Wayde," wherein the protagonist tells his wife: "I try to be sincere, really I do. But sometimes it's a problem, how to be sincere." A Kerry failure to prevail on Nov. 2 will owe largely to a failure to meld his style with a sincerity about the substance of his beliefs.