Through several years of university teaching, I am very familiar with the look of the C or D student who has prepared for an oral exam but freezes when being grilled in front of a class. He or she (it's usually he) gets this earnest look halfway between petrifaction in the face of danger and the urgent demand of a bowel movement and begins to perspire more profusely than the room temperature warrants. There are tense moments of waiting as the mind searches its cheat sheets for the answers and appears to be drawing a total blank. Then a pre-conceived answer is blurted out that may not bear even the remotest relationship to the question. The point is that the student has shone a measure of courage or sheer bravado in responding at all, considering how emotionally and psychologically out of touch he or she is with the material required to answer.
This is the look I saw repeatedly on George Bush's face during the first debate with presidential contender John F. Kerry. Like the C or D student he admittedly was at Yale, Bush was obviously not readily conversant with the facts and factoids important to such a high-level debate. He had been schooled in certain answers, to be sure -- that being president is "hard work" and that saying "This is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time" sends an awful message to our soldiers, allies, and enemies -- or at least he found some comfort in repeating these cliches that had drawn such sympathy and applause from his highly-screened all-Republican audiences on the campaign trail. But he was patently ill at ease with the fuller material of the debate -- all the plans, arguments, and details that he should have known as easily as he knows the days of the week -- and he came across the way he must have appeared at Harvard Business School, where one professor said he was among the dumbest students he ever taught.
I thought about Dan Quail in the famous debate with Senator Lloyd Bentsen, the one in which Bentsen said, "I knew John F. Kennedy, Mr. Quail, and, believe me, you are no John F. Kennedy." Quail too had that lost-in-the-footlights look, and seemed to be floundering for any answers that asked more of him than a recitation of his campaign theme about the importance of the American family. It would have been a disaster if Dan Quail had ever become president of the United States, and the first President Bush should have realized that. But maybe he didn't because he had a fatherly feeling for Quail -- a feeling inspired by the fact that Quail reminded him of his own son, George W.
As a minister and professor, I have never been particularly political, believing that I was flexible enough to vote for whichever candidate appeared to offer the most intelligence and moral courage for leading this country. I voted for Adlai Stevenson over Dwight Eisenhower because I thought Stevenson had the soul of a poet and the dignity of a diplomat. (I may have been wrong in that case because I underestimated the importance of Eisenhower's experience as Commander in Chief of the Allied Armed Forces.) I voted for Kennedy over Nixon because I thought Nixon was shifty and untrustworthy -- which he proved to be. I voted for Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford because I liked his populist approach and keen mind, even though he was the first president to say nucular. I voted for him again over Ronald Reagan because I thought Reagan was merely a pretty face being manipulated by his handlers, who included Nancy Reagan. And I voted for Bill Clinton over both George H. W. Bush and Bob Dole because I had known Clinton personally in the national literacy program and knew how smart and capable he was. But not once, in all those choices, did I vote for the Democrats because they were Democrats. In fact, if Rudolph Giuliani were running for president this time around, I would seriously consider voting for him.
But I find it hard to believe that anybody in his or her right mind would vote a second time for the bumbling president we saw on the national debates the other night. He made it clearer than ever that the only reason he got to be president (or governor of Texas, for that matter) is that he had the right name and family connections, which made him the perfect front for the ambitious, arrogant neo-cons who selected, groomed, and promoted him all the way to the Oval Office. Ask yourself, "Would this man have ever become president if he'd had a name like Smith or Googleheimer?" Of course not. For my money, he is the biggest embarrassment to our country since the presidency of Richard Nixon. And he is a far greater danger because Nixon at least knew what he was doing in foreign policy and was effectually driving his own bus, not riding at the back of it.
It isn't any wonder that Bush scowled a lot during the debate. It wasn't the scowling of an angry man, outraged by his opponent's positions. I've seen the look on too many C and D students. It was the scowling of a scared, self-doubting schoolboy who knew he was getting the stuffing beat out of him because he didn't know the right answers and could see that his trite little campaign mantras, devised by Karl Rove and company, weren't working in the setting of a debate. Those were the faces of the inner Bush, the ones the White House wants to keep us from seeing. And if the networks hadn't fudged on the rules of the debate, we wouldn't have seen them at all.
JOHN KILLINGER is a retired Congregational minister and university teacher who has written more than 60 books, including GOD, THE DEVIL, & HARRY POTTER (St. Martin's Press), TEN THINGS I LEARNED WRONG FROM A CONSERVATIVE CHURCH (Crossroad Publishing Co.), and ENTER EVERY TREMBLING HEART (Abingdon Press).