WASHINGTON — You have to say this for the first Bush-Gore face-off: They did go at it.
It came across as a genuine debate, two candidates laying out very different visions of government, spewing details, contrasting themselves with one another starkly. Except for the identical-twin outfits, the charge that these two are indistinguishable didn’t stick at all.
It was downright scrappy. There were times when you yearned for moderator Jim Lehrer to take control ("Enough! Al! Stop!"). But then, edgy exchanges are more telling than orderly questions and answers.
There were no major gaffes. Bush had a few difficulties matching subject to verb, ("I’ve been disappointed about how he and his administration has conducted the fund-raising affairs"), but nothing along the lines of converting tariffs and barriers into terriers.
In fact, I’d have to say that, if Gore’s task was to prove he’s a nice guy, and Bush’s was to prove he’s something more than that, Bush had the edge. Not because Bush was unerringly authoritative, but because Gore just doesn’t seem to be able to pull off the regular-guy thing.
He certainly tried. The vice president came out kissing and waving. He summoned up tight little smiles and strange little giggles. But that ineffable superciliousness lay upon him like a film of dust.
What exactly is that air, I keep asking myself? Schoolmarmish? Deaconish? That cocked head, eyes slid to the side, eyebrows pinched together and up. That fake, I-regret-it-but-that’s-how-it-is look. Those stagy sighs into the mike. If he wins, can we assume he’ll then relax? Please?!
Bush at least comes across as a decent fellow. He could have been talking to you, to me, to any of us. He wasn’t condescending or pedantic or officious.
But then he wasn’t very impressive, either. The conventional wisdom was that Bush just had to avoid falling flat on his face. He certainly did avoid that. But what a standard! Besides, during the first half, didn’t you find yourself on the edge of your seat hoping against hope that he’d be OK? Talking about international affairs, about financial crises, he seemed so nervous, so tight, so poignantly anxious.
He warmed considerably in the second half, and sounded downright at ease talking about education. But did most of the viewers make it to that point?
Worse, Bush’s attempt to dismiss Gore’s constant you’re-for-the-wealthy charge seemed flimsy. Fuzzy numbers, he’d complain, phony math — never really refuting the details. How you yearned to hear him stick up for the plan: The money goes back, in fair proportion, to those who earned it, he might have told us. He seemed too embarrassed to do it.
Throughout, their rehearsed intentions were obvious. Gore (in addition to his richest-1-percent mantra) was determined to preface his words with, "If you entrust me with the presidency … ," actually rewinding at one point when he had left it out.
As for Bush, he was desperate to produce one of those zingers we’d be remembering for years: He tried "Mediscare," he charged Gore with inventing the calculator as well as the Internet, he said the "buck stops here" sign had been moved from the Oval Office to the Lincoln bedroom. Bombs, all of them.
I’ve been of the opinion that this is a compelling race between two worthy candidates. I guess I still think so. But the two together didn’t make for inspiring viewing. Think back to the masters — say, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Despise either for whatever you will — politics or personal conduct — they were a pleasure to watch. They had grace. They had humor. They were so at home with themselves.
Heck, the supposed failures even looked better: Gerald Ford, who liberated Poland, or Michael Dukakis, who treated the idea of his wife being raped just as he would any other policy detail. Those two seemed masterly and at ease compared with Tuesday night’s performances.
But pulling all this off isn’t easy. These two guys will go out now to the battleground states and try to win over voters in this remarkably tight race, and next week they’ll get back together, and we’ll be watching and hoping. Hoping that Al — who we know is the smartest kid in the classroom — doesn’t try yet again to prove it. And hoping that George will make us believe, at last and for real, that he belongs in this classroom at all.