The victory is in the eye of the beholder or in the ear. The vice president sighed into the microphone, insufferably, audibly, and often. But the dog didn't bark that is to say, the dog of George W. Bush's notorious imbecility.
Where did it go, that world-famous stupidity, the language-mangling doofusness of the Fortunate Son? Did Dubya slip in a body double to do his talking? What happened to the eyes that used to be too close together? What happened to the deer in the headlights? Where was the tap-a-keg fratboy?
In the strange dynamic of a peculiar election year, Bush ended up by profiting from precisely the low, not to say humiliating expectations generated in the last few weeks by the sneers and whoops of the chattering classes.
And Gore billed as the heavyweight champion debater, buffed and smart and relentless, the millennial wonk got mildly creamed by his own advance publicity. The Japanese have a saying: "The nail that sticks up gets pounded down." The first debate wound up being a kind of perverse equalizer.
Defects defected to the other guy. It used to be said that Bush was guilty of a contemptible smirk. Now Gore smirked. Or else, like a salesman peddling vacuum cleaners door to door, composed his face in a symphony of insincerities and ingratiations, spieling the fine print of his pie in the sky: "Lemme tell ya what I'll do..." Gore still can't seem to get his performance right.
Meantime, Bush, the media's village idiot, kept scoring points as each minute passed without some appalling display of moronism. The suspense was unbearable. You noticed that Gore repeated the difficult, four-syllable name of the Yugoslav who beat Milosevic Gore showing off almost in a grade school way, and subliminally trying to show up Bush.
The tone remained civil and the rhetoric anodyne a couple of southern baritones (three, if you add Jim Lehrer's) droning on without humor, without noticable color, without passion. I heard Bush start to make a crack about Gore inventing the Internet, and I stirred hopefully, but the moment passed. If the dog didn't bark, it didn't sound-bite either. It occurred to me dimly to be grateful I do not make my living sifting through videotapes for the debate's sharp three-second quotes and "defining moments."
Under this influence, I dozed in my rocker, and a voice came to my ear, a kind of dybbuk, that whispered: "What in the hell has this country come to, that the two candidates for president of the United States an office that used to have some size and some drama and purpose spend almost all of their time whining and statistic-diddling over prescription drugs, Medicare, and Social Security (or "Soshsecur'ty," as Gore says), issues of relentlessly, depressingly geriatric implication? When did it become the central business it seems, the only business of American government to cosset old crocks? Is it the anticipatory dread of the Baby Boomers that sets the agenda now their ever self-cherishing impulse to rationalize the way before them and to prepare the featherbed of retirement, where they will come to rest betimes? And is it possible that young America is getting a little sick of this obsession with the nursing home generation?"
The dybbuk, a little monster with no social conscience, was also pretty sick of hearing about education. The issues of this campaign are all terribly worthy, and important, but soporific. And there are two more of these things still to come.