Election 2004  
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Father Kerry vs. Boy George

John Kerry came across as a mature candidate during the debate, while George Bush squirmed repeatedly at challenges to his record.
 
 
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The John Kerry that America saw on television Thursday night was not the John Kerry that the American people were told to expect by President George W. Bush.

In Kerry, they saw a man who knew himself, knew his values, and knew how, when, and where he would lead the nation in war and peace. Kerry wasn't shy about stating his agenda, defending it, and saying why it was an example of more mature leadership than that of the 43rd president. Most important of all, Kerry was adult enough to admit to the nation that he could change his mind when events called for it. And in doing so, he dominated the evening by setting the tone of the debate.

Bush, in contrast, presented himself as a resolute, unwavering leader, saying that that was what the nation needed to win – in Iraq and the greater war on terrorism. He held to his belief that he could do no wrong by always putting American interests first. "We would all rue the day if Saddam were still in power... believe me," Bush said, repeatedly adding that he exhausted all political and diplomatic remedies before going to war.

But Kerry showed that it just wasn't so. By citing Bush's record, Kerry demonstrated that Bush had diverted the country from tracking down Osama bin Laden, the real target in the war on terrorism. In fact, he said Bush "outsourced" the job of capturing or killing bin Laden to Afghani warlords who, only a week before, had stood with bin Laden.

Kerry started by saying that he can make the world safer. He knew about war, when to go to war, how to build alliances before war and wouldn't shrink from it if necessary. But he said Bush failed not only to follow his own words and path to war in Iraq, but the president was ignoring the truth of what was on the ground. "He went to Cincinnati and he gave a speech in which he said, 'We will plan carefully. We will proceed cautiously. We will not make war inevitable. We will go with our allies,'" Kerry said. "The terrorism czar, who has worked for every president since Ronald Reagan, said, 'Invading Iraq in response to 9/11 would be like Franklin Roosevelt invading Mexico in response to Pearl Harbor.'"

But the president did not respond to these assertions; instead he said Kerry changed his mind too often to lead a nation at war. "My opponent says 'Help is on the way,' but what kind of message does it say to our troops in harm's way, "Wrong war, wrong place, wrong time?" Bush asked. "(That's) not a message a commander-in-chief gives, or this is "a great diversion."

Kerry spoke truth to power, while Bush said whatever the powerful said was true. A good example of this dynamic came during debate on how to deal with the nuclear threat from North Korea. Bush said his solution was the only approach, six-party talks that his administration initiated after ending the Clinton administration's bi-lateral talks. Any other approach would fail, he said, because that would give North Korea what it wanted. But Kerry didn't buy that explanation, saying, here's the "real story."

"We had inspectors and television cameras in the nuclear reactor in North Korea," Kerry said. "Secretary (of Defense) Bill Perry negotiated that under President Clinton. And we knew where the fuel rods were. And we knew the limits on their nuclear power. Colin Powell, our secretary of state, announced one day that we were going to continue the dialog of working with the North Koreans. The president reversed it publicly while the president of South Korea was here. And the president of South Korea went back to South Korea bewildered and embarrassed because it went against his policy. And for two years, this administration didn't talk at all to North Korea.

"While they didn't talk at all, the fuel rods came out, the inspectors were kicked out, the television cameras were kicked out. And today, there are four to seven nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea."

For the first time, Kerry made a serious challenge to Bush for ownership of "the truth." And if proof is needed about who "owned the debate" or "won" it, look no further than the references that were made by the candidates regarding the United Nations.

Remember, Bush spent six months savaging the reputation of the U.N. before we went to war in Iraq, and the administration has since spent its time trying to pull down Secretary General Kofi Annan, and the authority of the Security Council. Kerry was having none of that. He spoke about the U.N. as a legitimate body to work with in our international engagements throughout the debate: "You don't help yourself with other nations when you turn away from the global warming treaty, for instance, or when you refuse to deal at length with the United Nations." Kerry was so effective in creating a climate in the debate about the positive qualities of the U.N., that by the end, Bush, coerced by the dominant argument squirmed his way into defending the U.N.'s limited involvement in Iraq, almost wistfully hoping that it would have a vital role in Iraq's reconstruction: "Of course, the U.N. was invited in. And we support the U.N. efforts there. They pulled out after Sergio de Mello got killed. But they're now back in helping with elections."

One can only hope that the audience is smarter than the Bush campaign gives it credit for, because Bush used a caricature of Kerry's character flaws, without using firm examples from his Senate record. Bush instead chose to stick with the distortions he's spent millions on in his TV ads. Meanwhile, Kerry channeled Bush's record as evidence of repeated examples of bad judgement. For example, Kerry highlighted the fact that fewer Russian nuclear warheads and fissile material had been dismantled in the two years after 9/11 compared to the two years before it. Since both candidates agreed that was the greatest threat to the country, it can only mean that Bush has failed to address what he believes to be the most dangerous threat to America and the world - in a post-9/11 environment.

Kerry spoke repeatedly from his strengths, showing that he had been around longer than Bush, and that his military positions reflected the thoughts of America's decorated war heroes and former leaders, including Bush's own father: "I'm proud that important military figures who are supporting me in this race: former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili; just yesterday, General Eisenhower's son, General John Eisenhower, endorsed me; General Admiral William Crowe; General Tony McPeak, who ran the Air Force war so effectively for his father – all believe I would make a stronger commander-in-chief."

Kerry also referred to Bush's father in discussing the wisdom of invading Iraq: "Now I believe there's a better way to do this. You know, the president's father did not go into Iraq, into Baghdad, beyond Basra. And the reason he didn't is, he said – he wrote in his book – because there was no viable exit strategy. And he said our troops would be occupiers in a bitterly hostile land."

The candidates' mutual praise for each others' daughters was perhaps the most unscripted and revealing moment of the debate. Like his unwavering policy on Iraq, Bush revealed his inclinations to keep his daughters on a tight "leash." Kerry replied that he had "learned not to" rein them in, suggesting that a more flexible and understanding approach had brought about better results as a father. It was a microcosm of Bush's "Let's stay the course" vs. Kerry's "Let's learn what experience teaches us" approaches to leading the free world.

Let's hope that America noticed the differences.

Jan Frel is AlterNet's political editor. Steven Rosenfeld is the senior producer for the Laura Flanders show on Air America Radio.