NEW YORK -- This is what I thought: Al Gore just clobbered George W. Bush in their first television debate. It was the most one-sided candidate contest I've ever seen.
The vice president was obviously smarter than the governor. He seemed to know more about Bush's programs than Bush did. He made Bush look small, physically smaller than I know he is, and gray and pursed-mouthed. It was embarrassing. He dominated Bush -- and Jim Lehrer, too. Both of them seemed to defer to Gore every time he opened his mouth or cleared his throat. There's more than a bit of the bully behind Gore's pulpit.
I thought Bush's answer on what to do about Slobodan Milosevic -- a name he pronounced two different ways -- was right up there with President Gerald Ford's 1976 stumble over whether the people of Poland were free or not. It was obvious that Bush had no idea what he was talking about when he said he would bring the Russians in to work out a transfer of power in Yugoslavia -- and then reversed himself after Gore pointed out that the Russians are basically on Milosevic's side.
That did not seem to faze Bush. "Well," he said, "obviously we wouldn't use the Russians if they didn't agree with our answer."
"Well they don't," said Gore. And he was right.
I was surprised, then, two minutes or so after it was over to realize that Vice President Gore probably lost the debate in the real world. I watched the action, if that's the right word, on ABC News. That network switched to Tampa, Florida, where correspondent Linda Douglass was talking with your usual group of "average" voters. The first person she handed the microphone to was a young woman, who said she kind of agreed with Bush when he accused Gore of using "fuzzy numbers."
That was a clever phrase, but it did not impress me because whatever Al Gore is, he's not fuzzy. Bush is the fuzzy, fudgie one. But what she said next about Gore made powerful sense: "I couldn't follow what he was saying."
That's it. Watching Al Gore, the practically perfect know-it-all, was, for her, like wandering into the wrong classroom. She saw a condescending star professor of intimidating knowledge pandering to a bunch of dim students including her, George Bush and maybe half the nation. I admire his professorial depth of knowledge, but if the vice president repeated some of those numbers one more time I was ready to stick my head out the window and scream for help.
To many Americans, including that young woman in Tampa, Bush must just seem more accessible than Gore. You could imagine talking to him rather than him talking at you. And that is no small thing. Perhaps we have one candidate, Bush, who can't explain his ideas, and one, Gore, who can't explain himself.
Thirty years ago, a Republican senator named Roman Hruska made a fool of himself when he defended a Supreme Court nominee named G. Harrold Carswell against charges he was a mediocre man by saying that mediocre people deserved to be represented just as much as smart people.
Hruska may have been wrong about qualifications for the Supreme Court, but he was onto something about politicians. If mediocre people -- read "average" or "ordinary" -- cannot understand what a president is trying to tell them, then we have a problem. Mumbling George may be a better communicator that swift Al, who speaks and moves like the valedictorian starring in a high school play.
We'll see what happens next time. I've thought for a while that Bush is smart enough to be president -- brains are for hire -- but was probably not smart enough to become president. Now I sometimes wonder whether Gore isn't too smart, or thinks he's too smart, to become president.
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