Richard Reeves

The President Has 'Ovalitis'

NEW YORK -- Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, did a focus group with 18 "swing" voters during the first Bush-Kerry debate at the University of Miami. The count before the debate was 12 undecided, two for President Bush and four for Sen. John Kerry. After the debate, the Luntz scorecard read: seven undecided, two for Bush, nine for Kerry.

Pretty dramatic stuff, though winning the debate -- which Kerry obviously did -- does not necessarily mean winning the election. But it beats losing the debate, as Bush did. Asked why, Luntz said: "The split-screen worked to Bush's disadvantage. The group thought he looked angry, negative and upset."

What the president looked like was a teenager getting a lecture from his parents.

Peter Canellos, evaluating the performances for The Boston Globe, also cited the cutaways of Bush listening (and squirming) as Kerry spoke. He wrote this on Friday: "Bush's repetition seemed insistent rather than firm, and his body language -- sighing, clenching his teeth, rolling his eyes -- suggested a man on the defensive."

Jay Nordlinger of the National Review, the secular scripture of American conservatism, began his evaluation by saying to his pro-Bush readership, "Don't shoot the messenger!" Then he gave them his unhappy message: "If I was a normal guy ... I would vote for Kerry. On the basis of that debate, I would."

What happened to Bush? What's wrong with him? I would say he has a bad case of Ovalitis -- an ear infection endemic to the Oval Office. Sit there long enough, and you don't hear anything you don't want to hear.

The people who come into the president's office know all about shooting messengers, so they bring only tidings of great joy. Anyone who doesn't do that gets fired. That's what happened to both his chief economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey, and the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric Shinseki, when they said, correctly, that occupying and stabilizing Iraq would take more money and men than Bush had imagined.

At first the president must have seen through all the bowing and scraping, but gradually it became his due; he is the boy in the bubble. And the bubble moves with him around the country as his staff and the Secret Service protect him from any unpleasant words or people. Tickets to his rallies are given only to the loyal. He holds no press conferences. He hides away out there in the Crawford sagebrush. He's alone.

Thursday night visibly shocked Bush. He was shocked by what Kerry was saying, particularly about the poisoned chaos that is Iraq. Why, the Democrat even raised questions about Ayad Allawi, the Iraqi tough guy Bush picked as prime minister -- and seemed on the verge of comparing to Winston Churchill. How could Kerry say such things about such a man? How could Kerry say things are going badly in Iraq? No one told the president that, or he didn't hear it. Why, that could demoralize our troops -- as if those soldiers in harm's way did not know what was going on long before Kerry spoke out.

Bush is a man who does not hear, or does not listen. That, rather than Kerry's confident professionalism, was what was important Thursday night. The challenger, we know, has had problems because he hears too many voices; he listens to everyone. The only people we know the president listens to are members of his small court, led by Vice President Cheney, who has been pushing the preposterous for the past three years.

This is not new. Bush gave away part of the game when he talked about never dreaming when he debated in 2000 that he would have to send troops into harm's way. What did he think presidents do? He seemed ignorant then. But as commander in chief he quickly became imperious. Answering a question from Bob Woodward in 2002 about whether he was listening to staff and advisers as he prepared for war, Bush said: "Of course not. I'm the commander. See, I don't have to explain why I say things. ... I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."

Apparently he meant that. He certainly did not make much of an attempt to explain anything in this first debate -- and that's why he lost it.

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