Gaffe Watch

GAFFE WATCH….Pre-debate coverage is blanketing the media right now, but for my money the best article I’ve read on the subject is “When George Meets John,” James Fallows’ take in the Atlantic a couple of months ago. Fallows didn’t just find a bunch of tired campaign hacks to provide dueling quotes, he actually watched dozens of hours of Bush and Kerry debating in the past, looking for clues to how they’ll perform this year.

His most interesting observation, I thought, was about the vast difference between the George Bush of today and the George Bush of 1994, when he was debating Ann Richards during the Texas gubernatorial race:

This Bush was eloquent. He spoke quickly and easily. He rattled off complicated sentences and brought them to the right grammatical conclusions. He mishandled a word or two (“million” when he clearly meant “billion”; “stole” when he meant “sold”), but fewer than most people would in an hour’s debate. More striking, he did not pause before forcing out big words, as he so often does now, or invent mangled new ones. “To lay out my juvenile-justice plan in a minute and a half is a hard task, but I will try to do so,” he said fluidly and with a smile midway through the debate, before beginning to list his principles.

….Obviously, Bush doesn’t sound this way as President, and there is no one conclusive explanation for the change. I have read and listened to speculations that there must be some organic basis for the President’s peculiar mode of speech?a learning disability, a reading problem, dyslexia or some other disorder that makes him so uncomfortable when speaking off the cuff. The main problem with these theories is that through his forties Bush was perfectly articulate. George Lakoff tried to convince me that the change was intentional. As a way of showing deep-down NASCAR-type manliness, according to Lakoff, Bush has deliberately made himself sound as clipped and tough as John Wayne. Moreover, in Lakoff’s view, the authenticity of this stance depends on Bush’s consistency in presenting it. So even if he is still capable of speaking with easy eloquence, he can’t afford to let the mask slip.

I say: Maybe. Clearly Bush has been content to let his opponents, including the press, think him a numbskull. Even his unfortunate puzzled-chimp expression when trying to answer questions may be useful: his friends don’t mind, and his enemies continue to underestimate him.

The whole article is well worth reading, but this, to me, is its single most interesting question: what happened to George Bush? Is it deliberate? Is it getting worse? And how will it affect him on Thursday?

I think it’s unlikely that Kerry will make any major mistakes, but judging from his recent performances it’s just possible that Bush could suffer a sudden brain freeze and make a huge gaffe in front of 40 million people. It’s going to be like watching a famous but aging tightrope walker and wondering: will he manage to hang on one more time or is this the day when he’ll finally make a tiny misstep and end up as political street pizza?

Other interesting debate commentary comes from Paul Krugman and Howard Kurtz, who make the same point in slightly different ways: the thing to watch is less the debate itself than the post-debate spin war. In 2000, for example, most viewers thought Al Gore did fine, but over the following week, as more and more journalists jumped on board the spin bandwagon, opinion finally morphed and Gore’s performance was officially declared dismal. Expect more of the same this year as reporters start talking to each other after the show and adopting each others’ views out of fear that they’ve missed the crucial storyline that everyone else picked up on.

Of course, this blog is a no-spin zone ? you knew that, didn’t you? ? and to make sure there’s no spin I’ll be liveblogging the debate, producing realtime commentary long before the spinmeisters get their licks in. It starts on Thursday at 9 pm Eastern time, so come on by and join the fun in comments.