When George Meets John

Presidential debates always put more importance on projecting character than on being right. George W. Bush and John Kerry can both boast of never having lost a debate, though the two candidates rely on strikingly dissimilar sets of skills. A viewer's guide to this fall's version of "asymmetric warfare"
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Recently I saw an amazing piece of political video. It was ten-year-old footage of George W. Bush, and it changed my mind about an important aspect of the upcoming campaign. Because the President so rarely exposes himself to live, unscripted questioning, and because he has expressed himself so poorly the few times he has risked such exposure this year, the political establishment assumes that John Kerry has a big advantage in this fall's debates.

I'm not so sure. Bush has been far more skillful in his debating career than is generally appreciated, and his successes in that realm put his widely noted lack of eloquence in a different light. During his career George Bush's speaking style has changed significantly, which is why the tape from 1994 was so intriguing. But his underlying approach to political communication has been constant—and extremely effective.

In 1994 Bush was an underdog candidate for the governorship of Texas. The incumbent, Ann Richards, was a phenomenon renowned above all for her biting wit. She had attended Baylor University in the 1950s on a debate scholarship. She had become the star of the 1988 Democratic convention with a keynote speech that mocked the elder George Bush: "Poor George. He can't help it! He was born with a silver foot in his mouth." When she first ran for governor, in 1990, Richards made a fool of her Republican opponent, Clayton Williams, with barbs and repartee that provoked him into intemperate outbursts.

As Richards prepared to run for re-election, she faced several obstacles. Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" was about to help the Republicans take control of Congress. The growth of the suburbs was accelerating Texas's shift from a solidly Democratic to a solidly Republican state. And Richards seemed visibly to have lost passion for her job. Her relatively young and inexperienced opponent, whose lackluster business career was his main credential, seemed to be the least of her problems—especially when it came to speaking skills. So great was Richards's perceived rhetorical advantage that the Bush campaign stonewalled in debate negotiations and finally agreed to one debate only, to be held on a Friday night in October two weeks before the election.

This spring I watched dozens of hours' worth of old videos of John Kerry and George W. Bush in action. But it was the hour in which Bush faced Ann Richards that I had to watch several times. The Bush on this tape was almost unrecognizable—and not just because he looked different from the figure we are accustomed to in the White House. He was younger, thinner, with much darker hair and a more eager yet less swaggering carriage than he has now. But the real difference was the way he sounded.

This Bush was eloquent. He spoke quickly and easily. He rattled off complicated sentences and brought them to the right grammatical conclusions. He mishandled a word or two ("million" when he clearly meant "billion"; "stole" when he meant "sold"), but fewer than most people would in an hour's debate. More striking, he did not pause before forcing out big words, as he so often does now, or invent mangled new ones. "To lay out my juvenile-justice plan in a minute and a half is a hard task, but I will try to do so," he said fluidly and with a smile midway through the debate, before beginning to list his principles.

Richards's main line of attack—in fact, her only one—was that Bush had done so poorly in a series of businesses that he would be over his head as governor. Each time she tried this, Bush calmly said, "I think this is a diversion away from talking about the issues that face Texas"—which led him right back to the items on his stump speech ("I want to discuss welfare, education. I want to discuss the juvenile-justice system ..."). When talking about schools he said, "I think the mission in education ought to be excellence in literature, math, science, and social science"—an ordinary enough thought, but one delivered with an offhand fluency I do not remember his ever showing at a presidential press conference. When Richards was asked about permitting casino gambling, she replied with a convoluted, minutes-long answer with details about Indian tribal rights. Bush, when asked the same question, had simply said, "I'm against casino gambling"—and when asked, after Richards's discourse, if he wanted to elaborate, said, "Not really." For years I had been told by people who knew Bush from business school or from Texas politics that he was keenly smart—though perhaps in a way that didn't come across in his public statements. Perhaps! The man on the debate platform looked and sounded smart and in control. If you had to guess which of the two candidates had won the debate scholarship to college and was about to win the governorship, you would choose Bush.

I bored my friends by forcing them to watch the tape—but I could tell that I had not bored George Lakoff, a linguist from the University of California at Berkeley, who has written often of the importance of metaphor and emotional message in political communications. When I invited him to watch the Bush-Richards tape, Lakoff confirmed that everything about Bush's surface style was different. His choice of words, the pace of his speech, the length and completeness of his sentences, all made him sound like another person. Even his body language was surprising. When he was younger, Bush leaned toward the camera and did not fidget or shift his weight. He arched his eyebrows and positioned his mouth in a way that, according to Lakoff, signifies in all languages an intense, engaged form of speech.

Lakoff also emphasized that what had changed in Bush's style was less important than what had remained the same. Bush's ways of appealing to his electoral base, of demonstrating resolve and strength, of deflecting rather than rebutting criticism, had all worked against Ann Richards. These have been constants in his rhetorical presentation of himself over the years, despite the striking decline in his sentence-by-sentence speaking skills, and they have been consistently and devastatingly effective. The upcoming debates between Bush and Kerry will in an odd way be a contest of unbeaten champions.

Neither George Bush nor John Kerry has suffered more than an occasional lapse or setback in a debate. Neither has "lost" a contest in the only way that matters: a serious post-debate decline in the polls or an electoral defeat. Bush's achievement is the more surprising, because he has entered every debate at a presumed disadvantage and has had to be a giant-slayer. Ann Richards was the most celebrated orator in Texas, having succeeded U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan in that role. Garry Mauro, whom Bush trounced in his re-election campaign in 1998, was an experienced and knowledgeable Texas official. In 2000 Bush's main opponent in the presidential primaries, John McCain, was beloved by the press for his mordant "straight talk." And in the general election Bush had to face Al Gore, who until then had manhandled a long series of debate opponents. Bush beat every one of them—in the election and, to judge by post-debate poll results, in the debates as well. The contests between Bush and Kerry this year will be a political version of what the Pentagon calls "asymmetric warfare," or combat between opponents with dissimilar strengths and vulnerabilities. The approach each side takes to asymmetric combat reveals basic traits relating to values and internal organization. This year's onstage asymmetric political combat will reveal basic traits in the character and leadership styles of the two candidates.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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