Thursday, October 28, 2004

Taking Your Eye Off the Ball

I read The New York Review of Books for the now-scarce reviews and scholarly articles, not the knee-jerk NYC-fashionable lefty politics, but this week's multi-authored "The Election and America's Future" is riveting stuff.

I do have one suggestion: skip Norman Mailer's vitriol and zero in on the two Englishmen, Alan Ryan and Ian Buruma, and one American, Brian Urquhart. Each manages to touch on much more acute problems those suggested by typical antiwar rhetoric. Buruma writes both lucidly and with feeling on the wane of his (and the world's) "Americophilia," the love of Americans and all things American. More and more, Buruma writes,

I hear the clichés of my own Americophilia being spouted in ways that sound false, as though I'm listening to a favorite tune being distorted by a faulty player. The rhetoric of freedom, fighting tyranny, and liberating the enslaved peoples of the world speaks louder than ever. But too often it is laced with a fear of foreigners, with a nasty edge of chauvinism and a surly belligerence. The US has always had mood swings from active intervention abroad to sour isolation. What appears to be the current mood in Washington is a peculiar mixture of both: a desire to fix the world alone, whether the world likes it or not.
The loss of American prestige in the world may be the inevitable consequence of being the world's only military and economic superpower, but the policies of the last four years have certainly given the countermyth of America -- the religious, uncouth, greedy, warmongering provincials -- new life, not just in the Middle East, but everywhere. I don't know what we can do to supplement this loss -- it might just be, after many temptations and close calls, our country's final fall from grace.

Ryan's and Urquhart's essays might be even more timely. Ryan conveniently summarizes the strongest cases against the Bush administration in a single pithy paragraph:
The claim that reelecting President Bush will make the world safer—any part of the world, including the United States—would be laughable if the Iraqi civilian death toll was not 15,000 and rising, if peace for Israelis and Palestinians was not further away than ever, and if international cooperation on everything from global warming to fighting AIDS had not been deeply damaged by the last four years of a know-nothing presidency. If it is a joke, it is in the worst possible taste.
Urquhart also gets right to the point, adeptly shifting the problem of international terrorism in the name of Islam away from the overfocalized (if not overhyped) Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The real crisis in the middle East was not and may still no longer be Iraq, or even Iran or Saudi Arabia, but Israel and Palestine. Urquhart writes:
Allowing that situation to sink further into violence and despair while publicly favoring one side over the other has made the prospect of peace far more remote for both Israelis and Palestinians. It has also provided a powerful anti-American boost for the forces of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism that are now our most immediate threat.
Later, Urquhart quotes Richard Clarke:
Rather than seeking to work with the majority in the Islamic world to mold Muslim opinion against the radicals' values, we did exactly what al-Qaeda said we would do. We invaded and occupied an oil-rich Arab country that posed no threat to us, while paying scant time and attention to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. We delivered to al-Qaeda the greatest recruitment propaganda imaginable and made it difficult for friendly Islamic governments to be seen working closely with us.
In his op-ed in the Oct. 25 Times, former Carter official Zbigniew Brzezinski makes a similar Iraq-Israel-Arab-Europe connection, and even offers a potential solution:
A grand American-European strategy would have three major prongs. The first would be a joint statement by the United States and the European Union outlining the basic principles of a formula for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, with the details left to negotiations between the parties. Its key elements should include no right of return; no automatic acceptance of the 1967 lines but equivalent territorial compensation for any changes; suburban settlements on the edges of the 1967 lines incorporated into Israel, but those more than a few miles inside the West Bank vacated to make room for the resettlement of some of the Palestinian refugees; a united Jerusalem serving as the capitals of the two states; and a demilitarized Palestinian state with some international peacekeeping presence.
The second and third "prongs" are European involvement in the reconstruction of Iraq and opening talks with Iran to get them to give up their nuclear ambitions, but the securing of a lasting peace in Israel is the fuel that makes the machine go.

However -- and this is a big however -- with Yasser Arafat near death and headed out of his compound for the first time in more than two years, Palestine may be ready to descend into a level of chaos we still lack the imagine to comprehend. The political and security situation there has steadily deteriorated without a word on the subject from the Bush administration; for the Kerry camp, anything even involving the word Israel is a political hot potato too hot to touch. The American public, too, has by large stopped paying attention to Palestine, resigned to continued --- what?

It's enough to make one wonder when Kerry talks about the Bush administration having taken its eye off the ball to go after Iraq if we've all managed to lose the big picture. And also: if Kerry wins and Arafat dies on November 2 -- what will happen?

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

John Peel, 1939-2004

Very sad news from the UK, with word that BBC disc jockey and alt-music legend John Peel has died of a heart attack.

I came somewhat late to alternative and independent music and even later to Peel fandom, but I have always been impressed by his nearly infallable taste, panache, and willingness to give unknown and unusual bands unheard-of exposure -- in the process, making many of them superstars, and connecting untold others to like-minded fanbases all over the world.

The BBC ran with Peel's death as a front page story. His institutional legacy is less apparent in the States, but I was able to pick up his obit on the AP wire. As radio increasingly turns to political talk and equally mindless music, he may well be remembered by future historians as the last DJ who mattered.

Monday, October 25, 2004

From Reform to Revolution (and the Backlash)

This is less a Schrift than a reading assignment (not that it's always easy to tell the difference). Do read Bruce Bawer's "The Other Sixties," from Wilson Quarterly courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily.

It's a long essay, but well worth it. Bawer does an admirable job at comprehensively surveying the political, religious, and cultural landscape of the early 1960s: the moment of Kennedy-inspired liberal optimism, before the left went counterculture (and Communist) and the right went plain nuts.

Particular highlights include the discussion of Vatican II and the move towards ecumenicalism in mainstream Protestant churches, the citation of the Nov. 1963 issue of the New Yorker that "when we think of (JFK), he is without a hat," and Bawer's readings of "The Twilight Zone" and Jack Paar's "The Tonight Show." Bawer paints a fine portait of the time he calls "classical liberalism’s last hurrah."

Wednesday, October 20, 2004


Compared to Bill O'Reilly's sex scandal or Dan Rather's foolish decision to put his face on phony National Guard documents -- really, on 60 Minutes II of all places, couldn't they have put someone up there who didn't have credibility to lose? -- Jon Stewart's pants-ing of Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala on "Crossfire" has gotten a fair amount of mainstream and cable media attention, but not much. Stewart appeared on "Crossfire" on Friday -- the Times just today weighed in and, like most pundits, spent more time circumlocuting Stewart's calling Carlson "a dick" than his exposure that "Crossfire" is, at best, offers a farcical, entertaining imitation of political debate. (Stewart's full retort to Carlson: "You're just as big of a dick on your show as you are on any show.")

Carlson was trying to take Stewart to task for lobbing softball questions at John Kerry when he was on "The Daily Show." But Stewart isn't that tough with anybody, nor can he be: how is he going to push Ed Koch on his endorsement of Bush on Monday and then have to talk to Marisa Tomei on Tuesday? Stewart's not Bill Maher: he isn't going to drag people who disagree with him on his show and try to get them in a corner so he can look good in front of his audience. It's a talk show, like "The Tonight Show" or "Oprah." And Kerry certainly did talk candidly about matters of much more political substance on "The Daily Show" than he did with Regis Philben or Dr. Phil.

Actually, it may be misleading to call "The Daily Show" a talk show. It's not really even political satire, in the way of its best predecessor, Michael Moore's "TV Nation" (from back when I liked Michael Moore). Stewart's "The Daily Show" is a satire on the media itself -- and always has been, since the days of Craig Kilborn's straight-faced imitations of handsome, hairdo talking heads. As cable news, network newsmagazines, and political operatives themselves have upped the level of media absurdity, to choose Stewart's term for it, "The Daily Show" has followed right along. Carlson and Begala asked Stewart if a Kerry or Bush win would give him better material, like he was a jokewriter for Jay Leno. Stewart flipped the tables on them -- it's shows like theirs, which purport to provide hard-hitting political analysis in a game show-derived format, that provide the best material. (Was it just me, or was the funniest/saddest moment on "Crossfire" when Carlson yelled, carnival-barker style "We'll be back with Jon Stewart -- in the RAPID-FIRE!!!")

Political news faces a problem. The vast-majority of under-60 voters don't believe in or trust the controlled, somber honesty of the network news anchor: Brokaw, Koppel, Jennings, and Rather are probably the last generation of this venerable type. Even many news-interested and news-savvy people don't like their news distilled into an hour or half-hour. If Yahoo! can give me the story before Tom Brokaw, I could care less. Hence 24-hour cable news, which has two imperatives: to fill the news day and make their programs as entertaining as daytime and primetime TV.

An easy way to fill both needs is to put political operatives or current/former politicians on the air, either as guests or as hosts of their own show. Producers rightly believe that people like Carson and Begala are in the know -- and since they specialize in prepping candidates for the media, they're made for TV. The problem, however, as Stewart revealed, is that people who are part of the political process have every interest in obfuscating the truth, because they want their candidates to win. Begala tried in vain to argue that this wasn't the case, but nobody believes this either. Most people, even media-savvy people, would rather follow the process as it happens -- how each party's guys tries to use these shows directly or indirectly to steer the populace one way or the other.

However, as Stewart rightly notes, by making the media just another extension of partisan strategies, journalists have effectively abdicated their role as truth-seekers, or at least, spin-filters. I don't believe that "The Daily Show" really seeks truth, but it may be the one show on television that manages to be simultaneously entertaining and through its satire of the media and those who would make the media their mistress, genuinely anti-spin.

Friday, October 15, 2004

How Green is my Metropolis

Having recently broadened my home search outside of Central Philadelphia to include the Jersey suburbs -- a development about which I'm more than a little ambivalent -- I was fascinated to read David Owen's article "Green Manhattan" in this week's New Yorker (lamentably, it's print-only). Here Owen -- a New Yorker staff writer and (apparently) recent author of a history of the Xerox machine -- argues that while big cities may not be pretty, per capita, they're more eco-friendly than any rural community founded by sprout-eating utopians.

I've always been fascinated by skyscrapers, or high buildings of any kind. From the nineteenth century until the advent of the internet, the skyscraper is the most efficient way to organize people, and especially information, anytime that physical proximity is at a premium -- and for most of our industrial history, it has been. But once companies deal almost totally in information, and once that information can be transmitted electronically (by telephone, fax, and internet), the skyscraper becomes obsolete, along with the principle of centralization that led to its development. Your company doesn't need to be in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco: you can relocate to pole-barn campuses outside of Phoenix, Denver, and Wilmington and everyone can be a lot happier. (Well, except the folks in Wilmington.)

Or does it? Some of Owen's best moments come when he explains how tall, narrow buildings are inherently more energy-efficient than low, sprawling ones:

Tall buildings have much less exposed exterior surface per square foot of interior space than smaller buildings do, and that means they present relatively less of themselves to the elements, and their small roofs absorb less heat from the sun during cooling season and radiate less heat from inside during heating season. (The beneficial effects are greater still in Manhattan, where one building often directly abuts another.)


One reason New Yorkers are the most dedicated [mass] transit users in America is that congestion on the city's streets make driving extraordinarily disagreeable. The average speed of crosstown traffic in Manhattan is little more than that of a brisk walker, and in midtown at certain times of the day the cars on the side streets move so slowly that they appear almost to b parked. Congestion like that urges drivers into the subways, and it makes life easier for pedestrians and bicycle riders by slowing cars to a point where they constitute less of a physical threat.

So what's Owen's solution to traffic jams? Instead of extending current mass transit lines outside of the city center (which only encourages more people to move farther away) or worse, adding expressways and widening existing traffic lanes (which only encourages more people to drive), you should gradually eliminate traffic lanes and parking spaces -- which would provide incentives for people to move downtown and give up their cars. (Or reject cities altogether. You can tell that Owen's neither a politician nor on the tourist board.)

Still, however, Owen's right on when he points out that even what most environmentally conscious Americans do to help is a symbolic gesture at best. "Recycling is popular because it enables people to relieve their gathering anxieties about the future without altering the way they live." Instead of eating organic and fighting to the death to preserve out-of-the-way green spaces, environmentalists really need to get hip to the energy crisis and move to the city. It's not pretty, but it's the best chance we've got.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Last Debate, Hazily Recollected

As with the first, I watched the third and final Presidential Debate at a bar. Chaucer's Tabard Inn, a trusty round-the-corner-and-up-the-street literary pub that's now under new ownership, was hosting a bluegrass music night, so a few of my friends and I met up at The Happy Rooster, a similar if smaller Center City bar, not too far from City Hall.

The environs were much less comforting. Half the crowd didn't want to watch the debate at all, including one drunken, Bush-supporting woman sitting right by the television screen. They wanted to drink and eat their dinner. It was hard to hear, and they only had bottled beer, no draught, so I quickly determined that I could do better at home. So I missed a few good chunks of the debate, and was surprised at the end to hear pundits declaring it a draw: with the volume down, Bush seemed to me to be the clear winner. (Of course, I could and should have consulted the full debate transcripts at the Commission on Presidential Debates website here.)

Bush's strategy was simple, physical, and effective: to take away Kerry's advantage at a podium debate by making himself appear to be as dynamic as possible. Bush has a hard time sitting still. This is why he appeared so increasingly uncomfortable in the first debate, and did much better in the second. This isn't about style over substance: Bush thinks and speaks better when he's in motion. When he's sitting still at a desk or podium and fumbles over a thought or phrase, he gets frustrated and begins to look a little bit like a high school student trying to remember the answers to the tests. When he can coordinate his thoughts with physical actions, both his mouth and memory work better. As a noted pacer, fidgeter, and hands-talker, I can empathize.

It's astonishing, too, to realize that another reason Bush did so much better in the second and third debates is because he's actually much more effective than Kerry on domestic issues rather than foreign policy. Bush's rhetoric on foreign affairs doesn't pass the smell test. Nobody really believes that life is peachy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even W's noble sentiments about the power of spreading peace and freedom throughout the world don't really connect with an middle-American electorate that's isolationist, cynical, or both. Kerry's managed to outflank Bush on this issue with right-leaning moderates since his plan reduces spending and brings more troops home. For these people, it doesn't matter whether the war was a good idea or not.

On domestic issues, however, Bush has the luxury of clarity, while Kerry does not. Faced with questions about religion, abortion, and gay marriage, Kerry is politically and compelled to say one version or another of "it's complicated," while Bush is able to say, "no, it's not." With respect to taxes, Kerry is compelled to balance his promises for new programs and tax cuts with his ability to pay for them, while Bush hasn't been compelled to balance anything. Nobody believes that Bush will balance the budget, but very few people really care, since he's credible when he says that he won't raise taxes. (He'll cut programs instead, but again -- few people really care, so long as it isn't social security.) Kerry is not credible in promising not to raise taxes on the middle class, and with our daily deepening debt, may not even be credible in promising to work to balance the budget. (Howard Dean made this point especially effectively in the primaries.) If most money-minded American people believe, rightly or wrongly, that the employment is going to continue to go up at the slow but steady rate it has been, and that the deficits will remain deficits regardless who is in office, then they're probably more likely to vote for the candidate who they believe will not raise their taxes. Unless they really are paying attention to their health care, property tax, and college tuition bills, and connect this to the federal government's newfound austerity towards the states and generosity towards insurance and drug companies, in which case, the trial lawyers make a handy villain. Nobody likes lawyers anyway.

I know that on this election, I've waffled between optimism and pessimism for the Kerry campaign and his chances of reaching the White House. Now my pessimism has begun to take the long view. Suppose Kerry does become the first Senator (and northern Democrat) to be elected President since John F. Kennedy. One question is whether his presidency will be a Carter presidency or a Clinton presidency. Carter, too, was a smart, tough-minded guy who emerged out of a period of economic depression and deep dissatisfaction with the party in power, but he was ultimately ineffective in turning around the country's domestic and foreign slump, and was neither liked nor trusted by the American people. The country went Republican (and eventually grew much more conservative) immediately following his watch. Clinton, on the other hand, despite his very public failures and surprisingly private successes, was a remarkably effective steward of the country during his eight years in office, and oversaw a rebirth and revitalization of his party that has, unfortunately, fizzled out in his absence.

Kerry, of course, is neither Carter nor Clinton, nor Kennedy, Johnson, Truman, or FDR, Gore, Dukakis, Mondale, or any other Democrat in Presidential politics you can name. In some ways he's closer to 41, George H.W. Bush, than his own son is. But Bush, too, promised not to raise taxes, and eventually -- despite his international successes -- it murdered him.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The Last Debate, Gearing Up

I never posted any comments here on the Presidential town-hall debates a week ago, but one moments in it was, in my opinion, crucial. As far as I can tell, nobody noticed it, or at least, nobody noticed who was paying any attention. It came when a questioner asked Bush whether he could name three mistakes he had made while he had been in office and what he would do differently.

A lot of pundits took note of the first part of Bush's answer -- that when people ask if he's made any mistakes, it's about the major decisions and events of his presidency: not paying close enough attention to Al-Qaeda before September 11, invading Afghanistan, cutting taxes, passing the Medicare extension, pulling out of the Kyoto treaty and the ICC, bypassing diplomatic solutions to the problem in Iraq, the invasion, the post-invasion, Abu Ghraib, Ahmed Chalabi, passing but not funding No Child Left Behind, failing to extend unemployment benefits during the recession, more tax cuts, etc., etc. Here, Bush says, I stand by my decisions.

This was a strong, effective answer. It has the air of demystification: "this is what people mean when they talk about mistakes." And it firmly demonstrates Bush's resolve on the core issues of his presidency and his major differences with the Democratic party. Really, Bush should have said it and shut up. But when he kept talking, he said something remarkable: that if he had to name any mistakes he had made, it had been in his appointments -- but that he didn't want to name the people involved, so as to embarass them on national television.

Lucky for Bush, nobody really noticed it. Of course, he's not talking about the appointments most Bush opponents would have seen as mistakes -- Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, John Ashcroft -- or, in all likelhood, sending secret messages to Colin Powell -- but rather referring to people appointed by Bush who are no longer with the administration. That means -- if we're picking three of Bush's "mistakes" -- Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, EPA head Christine Todd Whitman, and then a wild card of either CIA director George Tenet or head of counterterrorism Richard Clarke.

In other words, the only mistakes Bush's administration is willing to publicly admit is that at one time, some of its members admitted publicly that the administration has made mistakes.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Death and Writing

Jacques Derrida: 1930-2004

The headline of Derrida's obituary in Le Monde was typically restrained and factual, nearly to the point of dismissal:

Jacques Derrida était le philosophe français le plus connu à l'étranger, notamment aux Etats-Unis, pour son concept de "déconstruction".

A French philosopher, albeit one who had been particularly famous in the United States and had even been somewhat controversial, had died of pancreatic cancer at 74, after writing many books, marrying, fathering children, appearing on television, partnering for a time with Lionel Jospin, etc.

Obituaries necessarily deal in the past tense, but it remains astonishing how the beginning of the sentence -- "Jacques Derrida était" -- declares its own finality from the outset, as though the past had already been declared, the death contained in the birth, life, and action of the man now dead, now joined to adjectives by an imperfect copula. Derrida saw the assembly of two archives of his papers and materials before his death, one in Paris and another in Irving, California -- it was as though he had already been placed in the past, closed, understood. His obituary had been written in 1989, and occasionally kept warm -- that is to say, re-presenced. The time is out of joint -- or if one prefers Marlowe to Shakespeare:

Thou hast commited --- deconstruction.
But that was in another country,
And now, Derrida is dead.

What "was" deconstruction? Wouldn't a wire service reporter have to embarass themselves in trying to explain what kind of philosophy Derrida practiced? Wouldn't I? I can tell you that Derrida's arguments hinged on the idea of impossibility -- the impossibility of entirely ridding oneself of metaphysical presuppositions, the impossibility of a purely philosophical language, the impossibility of purity as such.

After arguing that so many philosophers' praxis continually contaminates their theoretical commitments, is it surprising that he refused to found a school or definitively state a body of beliefs, instead choosing to practice his new way of reading on philosophical, literary, linguistic, and anthropological texts alike, showing how these works effectively "deconstructed" themselves, especially when faced with foundational oppositions: speech and writing, absence and presence, the same and the other. He coupled intellectual rigor with a style that blended scholarly erudtion with writerly spontaneity, and his remarkable mystery made him a superstar for doing so.

While I've argued for Derrida's continued presence -- a ghostly presence through absence, as the ghosts of Ibsen or Joyce testified to the continued domination of the present by the past, seen in his photograph, which continues to materially and iconically bear his trace beyond his own destruction -- there is one sentence in Le Monde that does decisively work to close the past which we, its inheritors, still inhabit:

Il était le dernier survivant de ces penseurs des années 60, catalogués "penseurs de 68", (Althusser, Lacan, Foucault, Barthes, Deleuze, etc..), grands pourfendeurs de la notion de "sujet".

How can one have been the last survivor (le dernier survivant)? And yet yesterday, one could have said "Derrida is the last surviving thinker of the 60s, called 'thinkers of 68.'" Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes (who wrote "The Death of the Author" shortly after Derrida published his first books), and Gilles Deleuze have all died. And now Derrida, who was a famous French philosopher, the last survivor of the life and death of literary theory, is nothing. Il était.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Diagram This

I don't know who Kitty Burns Florey is, or what her website is all about, but when Arts & Letters Daily links to anything mentioning Gertrude Stein, I follow.

Florey's essay "Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog" has got me thinking: to what extent could the practice of diagramming sentences explain Stein's peculiar, experimental style? Stein's alternation of simple, declarative sentences with wild, grammar-coming-apart-at-the-hinges exercises and variations are utterly crucial for the development of American modernist poetry. Or to leave Stein for a moment, consider William Carlos Williams's famous "This Is Just To Say":

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Williams's poem is taken from a note left for his wife, but the way in which the simple sentences are rearranged, semantically and syntactically pressurized by their new graphical arrangement,
defamiliarized by their new poetic context is not unlike the grammatical/graphical gamesmanship of sentence diagramming. (Williams liked to describe his free-verse method as pressing words into pictures.)

Stein, less fond than Williams of white space, was especially fond of games of substitution and rearrangement, as in this short prose poem, "Any one doing something and standing":

Any one doing something and standing is one doing something and standing. Some one was doing something and was standing. Any one doing something and standing is one doing something and standing. Any one doing something and standing is one who is standing and doing something. Some one was doing something and was standing. That one was doing something standing.

My internal historical researcher stood up when I noticed that Williams and Stein, like many of the earliest modernists, were born in the 1870s/1880s -- in other words, almost exactly synchronous with the widespread adoption of handbooks of sentence diagramming in American primary schools.

It's always hard to show a direct correlation with something like this, but still -- I smell an article coming on.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

The Debate, Two Days After

This schrift originated as a comment on the always-cogent Snarkmarket -- but I thought that the Presidential debate merited a post of its own here.

Like most observers of the debate on either side of the aisle, I thought that Kerry was the clear winner. But "Kerry whomped ass" isn't the end of the analysis; the dynamics of the debate were remarkable. Kerry got better and better as the debate went on, while Bush got worse and worse.

Early on, Kerry seemed (as usual) dull, cerebral, unlikeable -- the generally haughty and aloof patrician image that some Democrats dislike even more than their populist Republican counterparts. His Senatorial habit of dropping names and statistics seemed both overly rehearsed and ineffective when compared to Bush's more imagination-appealing evocations of sacrifice, safety, and the transformative power of freedom.

When Kerry did try to tap into some of that language, it was mostly by feeding off of Bush's own lines: "I also believe the President should be strong and resolute..." etc. Early on, Bush was able to re-create the most effective image of himself as a strong, visionary, likeable commander-in-chief, last best seen in his first-rate convention speech. Kerry's message seemed to be: "If there's anything you like about George Bush, I am those things, and if there's anything you dislike about him, I'm the exact opposite."

But as the questions and responses followed on one another, Bush began to falter. His repetitive, "on message" replies and counterattacks seemed to be his only resort. What's worse, his disdain and discomfort during the debate were clearly obvious. Bush hasn't had to speak publicly in even a semi-hostile room for any length of time more than once or twice since he's been President. (Remember the similarly painful press conference he had on the White House lawn a year or so back? Ouch.)

At one point, I told my friends at the bar, "Bush is about two minutes away from turning into his Dad and looking at his watch." But really, watching him grimace and smirk, I expected him to shake his wrist at Kerry in the universal motion signaling "jerk-off." By the time that the questions turned to North Korea, Bush sounded so incredulous that anyone would disagree with his plan for multilateral negotiations and was so incapable of offering any other justification for his position than "that's just what Kim Jong Il wants!" that he seemed a bit raving himself. He came dangerously close to suggesting that resolve counts for more than results -- a sentiment the practically-minded middle doesn't really believe.

Meanwhile, Kerry was like a beautiful middle-distance runner -- sprinting into the stretch. His Senate experience of lengthy, factual, on-your-feet debate, a turn-off in the beginning, paid off in the end.

The turning point was when Bush, in a classic non sequitur -- probably the classic non sequitur of his three and a half years as President -- argued:

I never wanted to commit troops.
But then we were attacked.
[Therefore, I had to invade Iraq.]

Which let Kerry slap him (rhetorically) like a bitch: "Osama bin Laden attacked us -- [not Saddam Hussein]."

And then Bush replied -- "I know Osama bin Laden attacked us! [Don't get smart with me!]"

This is when Bush started to let Kerry define the debate, putting Bush on the defensive, rather than the other way around.

Kerry's scholastic style turned in his favor, as he turned into a bullet-point alternative CNN:

* The details of how the Bush administration screwed up North Korea;

* The still-scary state of security at ports, borders, and airports;

* The threat of nuclear proliferation and fissile material going across every border except Iraq's;

* The irresponsibility of increasing nonconventional weapons spending and tax cuts in a time when the greatest deficit in our Armed Services budget is personnel.

Did anyone know before the debates that Kerry had written a book about fighting post-cold war nuclear proliferation -- years before he became a national candidate? For me, it was the crowning moment in a string of similarly beautiful surprises.

A caveat: One question I have coming out of the debate -- my perennial question with the Kerry campaign -- is why Kerry lets an enormous lacuna into his biography between his Presidential campaign and his experience in Vietnam, especially when he wants to counter the contention that he's soft. The only reason Kerry won the caucuses and primaries over his somewhat half-baked opponents was his image as "a serious man." (For the record -- I always thought that Howard Dean and John Edwards were for real, although I completely underestimated Dean's ability to raise money.)

Why wouldn't Kerry say, especially in the context in a debate on foreign policy, something like this:

I left college. I fought as a combat officer in Vietnam. I was wounded and was sent home. I became an activist against what I thought was a mistaken war. Then -- I became a prosecutor in Boston, tackling organized crime, putting criminals behind bars and securing victims' rights. I was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, followed by being elected four times to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate, where I served on the Foreign Affairs committee. I've spent my entire adult life in public service, fighting injustice, hunting down and publishing those responsible, and trying to secure peaceful relationships between nations across the world. No one will do a better job than I will in accomplishing these goals as President of the United States.

<>That's the best contrast between Bush and Kerry in terms of biography: while Bush is fooling around with a baseball team, Kerry's writing books on post-Cold War foreign policy. If the security component of this election becomes a referendum about whether Kerry's account about his own injuries can be believed, rather than the extensive and impressive public record of his actions after Vietnam, then Kerry can only lose.