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"

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.

Debates make a big difference in presidential politics, but not for reasons taught in logic class. Typically they are the only time the major candidates meet face to face. Therefore they give the public its main chance to size up the candidates physically, emotionally, and—least important—on their ability to give knowledgeable answers.

Only once in modern history has the substance of a presidential candidate's comments in a debate mattered politically. That was in 1976, when the incumbent, Gerald Ford, appeared to say that Poland, then part of the Soviet bloc, was not subject to Communist control. A fair-minded observer could parse what Ford was trying to say—that the free spirit of the Polish people would never be quashed. But the episode fit Ford's image as a bumbler and gave Jimmy Carter a decisive debate "win."

In every other modern case wins and losses in presidential debates have turned on revelations of a candidate's personality, character, and temperament. In 1960 John Kennedy looked fit, elegant, and confident, and largely through stage presence made himself the equal of the much more experienced Richard Nixon. In 1980 Ronald Reagan made Jimmy Carter look small-minded and fact-bound when he answered Carter's criticism of his position on Medicare by saying, "There you go again!" In 1984 Reagan badly struggled through his first debate with Walter Mondale, and ended his second with a pointless and senile-sounding reverie about driving along the Pacific Coast Highway in California. But in the view of the press, Reagan "won" the second debate, because when asked about the "age issue" he came back with an affable and effective one-liner about "not exploit[ing] for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." In 1988 the Michael Dukakis campaign never recovered from Dukakis's bloodless-sounding answer to a debate question about whether he would favor the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered—even though his running mate, Lloyd Bentsen, torpedoed Dan Quayle in the vice-presidential debate with the now famous remark "I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine ... and Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." In 1992 the elder George Bush seemed to signal that he had thrown in the towel when he glanced at his watch during the second debate against Bill Clinton. On paper George W. Bush lost the battle of logic to Al Gore in the 2000 debates. But he won the more important "Saturday Night Live primary," when Gore was ridiculed for the three different personas he had presented in three debates.

"Debates are not about scoring points," George Lakoff told me, in remarks that were echoed by the Democratic strategist Robert Shrum, the Republican veteran C. Boyden Gray, and everyone else I asked who had experience in presidential campaigns. "They are about emotional identification"—projecting a personality, a bearing, and a world view that voters find appealing.

George W. Bush has thrived in this kind of competition for a deceptively simple reason: he is always on message. Every politician understands that each question at a press conference or a debate should be considered an invitation to make a point of the politician's choosing, no matter what was asked. Doing this gracefully is harder than it sounds. Bush gave a reminder of just how hard in his two widely panned live appearances early this year, on Meet the Press in February and in a prime-time televised press conference in April. In neither case did he even go through the motions of politely trying to connect the question that was asked to the on-message theme he had previously decided to stress. As soon as each question began leaving a reporter's lips, you could practically see the President riffling through a mental set of file cards for the next theme he wanted to present.

Yet there are two crucial points to remember about Bush's recent faltering performances. One is that to voters who still have an open mind about him, which is the only audience that matters politically, even a technically clumsy effort to stay on message can succeed in conveying his core values of steadfastness and resolve. The other is that it's wrong to think that Bush is innately clumsy in making rhetorical connections. A senior Republican campaign official, who for obvious reasons would not let me quote him by name, said several days after Meet the Press that he was glad the President had been roughed up the way he was: the experience could serve as a wake-up call, early enough in the campaign season for the Bush team to respond to it. He said he hoped it would motivate the kind of preparation that in the past had made Bush artful indeed in steering questions and challenges to his desired subjects.

After seeing the Bush-Richards debate from 1994 Lakoff concluded that it should be used to teach successful debate technique. Within the first few words of each reply Bush had figured out how to use the question as an opening not simply for his major campaign themes but also for the personal and emotional messages he wanted to project.

Bush's themes in that 1994 campaign were highly predictable. Every time, everywhere, he said he had four ambitions for Texas: to reform the welfare system, to toughen the juvenile-justice system, to improve the public schools, and to end abuses of the tort system. What made the points effective was his presentation of them as reflections of a single emotional message: people had to become more "accountable" for their behavior, good or bad.

With his very first answer in the Richards debate, Bush showed how he would make that connection. The candidates were asked what single issue they considered paramount for Texas and what they would do about it. Richards went first, with a worthy but meandering observation about the link between good schools and good jobs—and then used the last twenty seconds of her time to remind her audience ("all of us all well dressed and feeling good") to say a prayer for the families in South Texas who were spending that night in shelters because of a hurricane.

"Well spoken, Governor," Bush began, both sounding gracious and disposing of the hurricane-compassion issue in three words. He then moved straight to his main theme: "I think the biggest thing Texas must do is to end the post-Vietnam War syndrome which blames others for society's ills. All policy in Texas must say to each and every individual, You are accountable for your behavior." He then explained what that would mean in welfare, juvenile justice, and the schools, and summed up by saying he wanted to "change a culture that has not held Texans accountable for what they say and what they do."

This was an introduction to how the rest of the evening would go. If the question was about Bush's background (Why have so many of your businesses lost money? Why are you qualified for this job?), Bush would say that this was a distraction from the issues that really concerned Texans. If the question was about anything else, he would say that the solution lay in reforming welfare, juvenile justice, and the schools, with an overarching emphasis on accountability.

In case anyone had missed the point, his closing statement made it clearer still: "I hope people in Texas understand that there are big differences between Governor Richards and me. I am the conservative candidate. She is the liberal candidate ... Won't you join me to make sure that Texas does not look like the rest of the nation but is in fact a beacon state? A state so unique that people look at us and say, That's where I want to live. 'Texas, our Texas, all hail the mighty state.' Thank you, and God bless Texas."

This was the obvious part of Bush's effectiveness. Behind it were two other achievements, less obvious but also important.

One was brilliant management of the "expectations game"—the political world's counterpart to beating the point spread in professional sports. "What was their secret in that debate?" Mary Beth Rogers, an adviser to Ann Richards in her campaign, said when we spoke recently. "It was how they stage-managed the whole process. They constantly set expectations so low against the 'brilliant,' 'silver-tongued' Ann that if he didn't fall on his face in the debate, he 'won.'"

Every external signal sent by the Bush campaign underscored the idea that Richards would romp through the debate. After a consortium of major Texas media outlets agreed to host a debate in Dallas, Bush representatives balked at the idea that half the questions would come from a citizens' panel rather than from reporters. Perhaps they remembered that the first George Bush had done poorly against Bill Clinton in a similar "town hall" debate two years earlier. Perhaps they worried that citizens might ask left-field questions for which George W. Bush was not prepared. The Bush team eventually agreed to the format, but not before reinforcing their underdog image.

As it happened, they had nothing to fear from the citizens, most of whose questions were vague softballs. The two toughest questions for Bush came from veteran journalists. Paul Burka, of Texas Monthly, scoffed at Bush's claim that he was a fresh face and an outsider. "You're the son of a President of the United States ... You proudly say that you've never held public office—but you sought public office [a congressional seat in 1978] and you got beat. Maybe you're proud of it. I don't know ... isn't it a little disingenuous to portray yourself as an outsider?"

Bush's response was a classic of skillful on-messagism: "I'm not proud of the fact that I got whipped in '78. I did come in second in a two-man race"—a slight pause and a purse-lipped smile, in honor of the mild joke, and then the segue—"but here's my point. If you want someone to think the way it's been all along in Austin, then they should not be for me. I am not happy with the welfare system ..." And so on through the familiar list.

The other tough question came from Jim Moore, of KHOU, who asked Bush how he had gotten into the National Guard when so many people were on the waiting list. Bush's answer was different from, and more interesting than, his current line on the subject. Most of them, he said, weren't willing to put in the time to become jet pilots. "I wanted to learn how to fly a jet. And I did fly a jet. It took a year and a half's worth of training, something that most people did not want to do." That question did not recur in his Texas debates—but it will this year.

"We never underestimated his abilities, and we worried all along that what did happen would happen," Mary Beth Rogers told me. "They were masters at it. They kept on saying, Ann is so sharp, she is so witty, we don't expect to do well in the debate. They convinced the press and everyone that they were really worried. But in fact he had rehearsed, he had his answers down pat, and he has that remarkable ability to stick to his message and repeat it no matter what. When the debate was over, the fact that he was still standing, that he had presented himself well if not brilliantly, made people think, Well, he's okay!"

This approach was fair warning of the way Bush would handle Al Gore six years later. "Bush is a very cagey player," I was told by George Shipley, who also worked on the Richards campaign. "When he first started to run on the national level, the press stumped him with pop quizzes about the map of Central Europe." According to Shipley, Bush was "happy to play the simpleton and have everybody underestimate him." (He did, however, lack Ronald Reagan's natural ease in that role: when running against Jimmy Carter, in 1980, Reagan was asked to name the current President of Iran, which was then holding Americans hostage. "Well, I don't know his name," Reagan replied with a smile. "But let me tell you, if I become President, he's going to get to know mine.") "The eastern liberal press will look down on him," Shipley said of the upcoming debates, "and he'll use that underestimation—he'll use it shrewdly and brilliantly, as he did against Richards and Gore."

Bush's other achievement, whose effect was magnified by the low expectations, was how extensively he prepared. The connection between preparation and performance has been muddied in recent years by the examples of Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Based on all available evidence, Clinton is the rare orator who doesn't need formal practice to excel. Gore, with his overdeliberate speaking style, managed to give practice a bad name. But in public speaking as in most other pursuits, practice usually makes people better, and rustiness makes them worse. As President, Bush has steadily improved in his delivery of formal speeches, because he has worked at it. When I asked his Republican associates why he did so poorly on Meet the Press, the explanation (always without attribution) was that he had done too few interviews. "I know I'm better on TV shows if I'm in practice, and worse if I'm not," Boyden Gray told me. "The President got out of practice during the Democratic primaries, and he'll certainly get better once he's back in."

There are some skills Bush can use with little or no effort; according to friends, he can quickly size people up and detect their vanities and weak points. Other skills appear to require too much effort for him to bother with. He has rarely been interested in the details of any policy matter, believing that he "has people" who can master the subject for him. But Bush clearly is willing to work hard and observe strict discipline when it matters to him—for instance, in physical conditioning. The evidence is that he approaches campaign preparation with the same iron will.

About Bush's evolution as a speaker there are only a few more things to say. One is that the three years starting with the Bush-Richards debate were a kind of Golden Age of Bush. He was popular in Texas, among Democrats and Republicans alike. The Dick Cheney of that era—the experienced figure widely assumed to be showing the new leader the ropes—was his lieutenant governor, Bob Bullock, a Democrat and the epitome of the split-the-difference, uniter-not-divider school of government. Political Austin is a surprisingly small town; people from both parties run into one another in the grocery store or on the sidewalk, and Bush's retail-level personal charm served him well. "When he became governor, he was finally pleased with himself, in a good way," Paul Burka, who covered Bush through his Texas years, told me. "He felt like somebody who had finally grown up. He emanated power—not so much political power as a personal sense of confidence and ability." Yolette Garcia, who as the executive producer at KERA-TV, in Dallas, had supervised negotiations for the Bush-Richards debate, says that in those days Bush was noted for his poise and ease in public appearances—including the informal Q&As he has tried to avoid as President. "You never saw him in an awkward situation as governor," she told me. "You expected he'd know the right thing to say."

Obviously, Bush doesn't sound this way as President, and there is no one conclusive explanation for the change. I have read and listened to speculations that there must be some organic basis for the President's peculiar mode of speech—a learning disability, a reading problem, dyslexia or some other disorder that makes him so uncomfortable when speaking off the cuff. The main problem with these theories is that through his forties Bush was perfectly articulate. George Lakoff tried to convince me that the change was intentional. As a way of showing deep-down NASCAR-type manliness, according to Lakoff, Bush has deliberately made himself sound as clipped and tough as John Wayne. Moreover, in Lakoff's view, the authenticity of this stance depends on Bush's consistency in presenting it. So even if he is still capable of speaking with easy eloquence, he can't afford to let the mask slip.

I say: Maybe. Clearly Bush has been content to let his opponents, including the press, think him a numbskull. Even his unfortunate puzzled-chimp expression when trying to answer questions may be useful: his friends don't mind, and his enemies continue to underestimate him. But to me the more plausible overall explanation is the sheer change in scale from being governor of Texas to being President of the United States.

"It would never have occurred to me (or anyone else who dealt with him at the Capitol) to think of Bush as dumb or lacking gravitas," Paul Burka recently wrote in Texas Monthly, about Bush's bright early days as governor. "He was both fluent and knowledgeable about the things a governor needed to know ... He had an unerring instinct for knowing how others really felt about him and how to win them over." In Washington he still has the people skills, but he has given no sign of mastering issues. Thus his stalling, defensive pose when put on the spot.

Burka says that the change began when Bush took seriously a run for the White House. He became more partisan, more formal, more cautious. The results were evident in his second Texas debate, against Garry Mauro. Again the Bush team stonewalled in debate negotiations—this time out of haughtiness, because of Bush's huge lead in the polls. Mauro wanted as many debates as possible; Bush finally agreed to only one. It was on a Friday night in mid-October, head-to-head against high school football games, for minimal statewide viewership. The location was in El Paso, so remote from the rest of the state it is in a different time zone, and with a heavily Hispanic, Democratic electorate. Bush thought that if he could become the first Republican in memory to carry El Paso—as he ultimately did—he might demonstrate the potential breadth of his nationwide appeal.

As a result, Mauro and the entire debate were essentially props for a Bush campaign blitz in West Texas. The debate was held in a tiny basement room on the campus of the University of Texas at El Paso. The candidates' families and a few local officials sat on metal folding chairs in the room; everyone else, including reporters, watched TV monitors elsewhere. Laura Bush sat a few feet away from Mauro's children, whom she knew but (according to Mauro) did not speak to or acknowledge. According to the rules of this debate, insisted on by Bush's team, the screen had to show only whichever candidate was speaking—that is, no cutaway or reaction shots were allowed.

Therefore no one outside the room saw the miniature drama inside. Bush was halfway toward his presidential style, speaking more slowly and less gracefully than four years earlier, and with a more dismissive air toward his opponent. While Mauro was speaking, Bush would sigh, grimace, and send body-language messages of boredom or contempt. "It was incredible," Mauro told me recently. "I almost can't believe it in retelling it. Because the press was upstairs, they didn't realize how aggressive he was on the stage—pulling the sleeve of the moderator, staring or winking at Laura in the crowd." The moderator of the debate, Bob Moore, of the El Paso Times, told me that Bush actually grabbed him just before the debate: "In the hallway, Bush did grab me by the lapels, pull me close to his face, and say, 'Bobby, you clean up real good.' Typical Bush." When Bush was on stage but off camera, Moore said, "there was that Bush smirk, rolling his eyes, all of which Bush is very good at."

During Bush's run for President his debates were notable mainly for the way Al Gore destroyed himself. Bush, after his campaign had relentlessly downplayed expectations, was serviceably on message in his three appearances with Gore. But Gore was too histrionic in the first (the "sighing" debate), too gentle and drugged-seeming in the second, and too late in finding the proper calmly aggressive tone in the third.

Bush did have one difficult moment in the 2000 debates. It came neither during the cattle calls of the early primary season, in which he had to compete for airtime with the likes of Gary Bauer and Steve Forbes, nor during the general-election debates against Gore, in which Bush stuck with his mistake-avoidance strategy while Gore flopped from tone to tone. Rather, it came before the bitterly contested and decisive South Carolina primary.

On February 15, four days before the vote, Bush and McCain appeared together on Larry King Live (along with Alan Keyes, the motormouth former ambassador, who was still in the race). Beneath a smile, McCain was seething. Two weeks earlier he had pulled off a surprising victory over the much better financed Bush in New Hampshire. Bush had responded in South Carolina by attacking McCain mercilessly from the right. On Larry King, Bush and McCain traded complaints about unfair negative campaign ads. Bush's complaint was that McCain had run an ad comparing him to Bill Clinton. "That's about as low a blow as you can give in a Republican primary!" he said.

McCain held a tight smile. "Let me tell you what really went over the line," he said shortly afterward, when asked by King for a reply. At a recent Bush rally Bush had stood alongside someone McCain called "a spokesman for a fringe veterans' group," who had denounced McCain for "abandoning" Vietnam veterans.

With feigned politeness, McCain told Bush, "I don't know if you can understand this, George, but that really hurts. It really hurts." No mention of McCain's service as a military pilot, nor of his imprisonment and torture in the "Hanoi Hilton"; everyone knew what McCain meant. McCain turned to King. "And so five United States senators—Vietnam veterans, heroes, some of them really incredible heroes—wrote George a letter and said, 'Apologize.' You should be ashamed."

Bush sputtered, "Let me speak to that ..."

McCain faced him again, calm but contemptuous: "You should be ashamed."

It went on for minutes. Bush protested McCain's underhanded tricks—why, one of McCain's supporters, the former senator Warren Rudman, had said that the Christian Coalition included "bigots." Of McCain's military heroism Bush lamely said, "I'm proud of your record, just like you are," and conceded—in an "okay, are you happy now?" tone—that McCain had "served his country well" and had not abandoned veterans. But he was still unhappy himself: "You can disagree with me on issues, John, but do not question—do not question my trustworthiness, and do not compare me to Bill Clinton." It was Bush's worst onstage moment in the 2000 campaign. He managed to sound both self-righteous and rattled by McCain's direct challenge to his tactics and implied slight to his courage. This is a tape the Kerry campaign will want to examine—while remembering that Bush went on to beat McCain in South Carolina.

John Kerry's speaking style has a much longer video record than Bush's. This record, too, is startling, but for the opposite reason: throughout his public life John Kerry has sounded the same. As a long-haired twenty-seven-year-old Vietnam vet, Kerry appeared on Meet the Press in 1971 to explain his opposition to the war. On Meet the Press this spring, footage from that old segment was intercut with live comments from the sixty-year-old Kerry. If you didn't look at the screen, you couldn't be sure which Kerry was speaking. During his run for re-election to the Senate eight years ago, Kerry met the Republican governor of Massachusetts, William Weld, in a celebrated series of eight debates. The man who appears on those tapes has darker, more helmetlike hair than today's Democratic nominee, but otherwise his moves are just the same as the ones Kerry used against his rivals Dean, Gephardt, and Edwards in the Democratic-primary debates.

Sitting through the videos of Kerry's old debates and interviews produced an effect I hadn't remotely anticipated: I was sorry when they were finished, because it was a treat to see this man perform. With Bush, I developed new respect for the power of his determination to stick to his main point. But this is not something you want to watch. Kerry under pressure was engrossing in a way that reminded me of a climactic courtroom scene in a Scott Turow novel, in which a skillful prosecutor eventually traps an evasive witness. You could see him maneuvering, thinking, adjusting, attacking, applying both knowledge and logic, and generally coming out ahead. John Kerry's formal speeches often seem to illustrate the main complaints about his style: that he is pompous-sounding and stiff. But these debates mainly make you think, This man knows a lot, he is fast, and he has an interesting mind. Kerry was usually effective without being ugly or unfair. Kerry's lightness of touch, compared with Bush's relentless plodding, is a surprise considering what we all know about their backgrounds: Bush never thought of becoming President until a few years before he did; Kerry thought of it in prep school.

The contrast in speaking styles is complete on nearly every axis, and it illustrates the larger contrasts of character and background that these men bring to this race. Bush is best when prepared and worst when surprised; Kerry is best when forced to react and worst when given too much time. Bush is best when insisting on his two or three main points, Kerry when recognizing the nuances of any particular issue. Two different concepts of leadership, in addition to two political views, are at stake in the campaign—and the clash of personalities will be more interesting than the differences over policy in the debates.

John Kerry decided early in life to develop his speaking skills, and he reached a more or less mature proficiency by his early twenties. In prep school, at St. Paul's, he took a course that analyzed classic debates from history, and was a successful member of the debate team. "He has always been a very studied person when it comes to his public speaking," Daniel Barbiero, who was a St. Paul's classmate of Kerry's and roomed with him at Yale, told me. (A total of eighteen St. Paul's graduates were in that same Yale class.) At Yale, Kerry took a course in the history of American oratory, taught by the history professor and debate-team coach Rollin "Rollie" Osterweis. "John loved the class," Barbiero said, "and would come back to the room and read to us so-and-so's great speech from the 1800s." Osterweis frequently said before Kerry's graduation that he was one of the greatest debaters ever to come from Yale.

In the summer of 1963, after his first year in college, Kerry traveled to Europe with another of his roommates, Harvey Bundy. "He had a lot of things he wanted to do in London," Bundy told me, "but the thing he wanted to do more than anything else was to talk at Speaker's Corner, in Hyde Park." Kerry stood on a wooden crate and began speaking. "I wasn't really that interested," Bundy said. "I mean, I heard him every day. I think it was a defense of U.S. policy, and it was very passionate. But what amazed me was that maybe ten people gathered around to hear him." According to an article in the Yale Daily News, Kerry was on the winning team in dozens of debates while in college, including one against a much feared and previously unbeaten team from England. In his senior year Kerry was expected to win the competition to be class orator, and he did.

I asked Bundy, Barbiero, and another Yale friend, David Thorne, whether Kerry's early speaking success seemed to be more a matter of talent or of effort. They all said both. "John was always writing things out on legal pads and practicing them," Bundy told me. "At Hyde Park he was speaking completely without notes, but the speech was probably one he had given at Yale." Thorne said, "Since I've known him, he's always been good at speaking—and he has always worked at being good. He would write out the speech, and we'd listen to it, and he would change it and practice it some more." Kerry's determination to practice was no doubt intensified by his one great failure as a college speaker. In his junior year he was competing for the Yale speaking prize, which required delivering an oration from memory. Kerry worked on his speech and gave it repeatedly to his roommates. But when he took the stage, he froze. "He had known it absolutely cold, but he couldn't get it back," Bundy told me. "It probably hasn't happened to him since, but it certainly did that day."

David Thorne, often described as Kerry's best friend, presents this determination as a matter of basic temperament. Thorne, who is from a wealthy New York family, was with Kerry in Skull and Bones and also in the Navy in Vietnam. His sister, Julia, was Kerry's first wife. "When he is in a fight, he rises to the moment like nobody else I've seen," Thorne told me. "He has a great instinct for figuring out, under pressure, what is necessary to survive. The downside is, when he's not under pressure he can sometimes wander around. It's kind of a deadline syndrome he struggles with." Thorne went on to connect this to combat experience in Vietnam, but it also fits Kerry's performance as a presidential candidate: lackluster as the early Democratic front-runner, and then intense in fighting his way back.

From the archives:

"A Race Too Far?" (August 1996)
"A pillow fight at the Somerset Club," one local wag calls the Senate contest between Kerry and Weld. By Jack Beatty.

In 1996 Kerry faced his only tough race for re-election, against William Weld. In some ways Weld and Kerry were absurdly similar. Both were aristocratic-sounding, though only Weld came from a rich family. They were the same imposing height and nearly the same age. They had grown up eyeing each other as rivals in Massachusetts politics, and their showdown had the jocular, insider quality of a Harvard-Yale football game. "I brought silver golf markers to one of our debates—an H and a Y," Weld told me when I visited him recently at his offices in New York, where he is an investment consultant. Kerry was Mr. Yale of his era; Weld's family is so closely connected to Harvard that a dorm, a boathouse, and an endowed chair are named Weld. "I handed him the Y and held on to the H, and I said, 'Let's go play a round when this is all done.'" Both men were very sure of their ability to think on their feet.

But they differed in a crucial way. Kerry tried harder. His tone was more appropriate to a TV debate (Kerry was understated and almost languid, Weld strangely blustering). He was quicker to turn each answer into an attack. And he more clearly figured out the theme that would be troublesome for his opponent, as he hammered home the idea that Weld was a comrade of Newt Gingrich and the national Republican Party—a kiss of death in Massachusetts. (Perhaps illustrating the truism that aristocrats don't sweat off the squash court, on the day of the first debate Weld was worrying about a chess match against a journalist. "I would advise the President not to engage in any chess games by mail while engaged in debates with Senator Kerry," Weld told me. "I was studying the chess game in my office and also preparing for the debate that night—and I made just a little bit of a mistake and lost a pawn. And I really hated losing that pawn.")

Weld's distraction may have allowed Kerry to get off perhaps his most memorable line that night. Weld named the mother of a policeman killed in the line of duty, and challenged Kerry to tell her why he opposed the death penalty for cop-killers. "I know something about killing," Kerry began, confident that everyone in Massachusetts remembered that Weld had sat out the Vietnam War with a bad back. He went on to present the argument he had prepared on this point: that such people were "scum" who should be thrown into jail for the rest of their lives, but that he didn't think the state honored life by sanctioning killing. According to Robert Shrum, a longtime confidant who was Kerry's "message adviser" in the Senate race and who plays the same role in his presidential campaign, the "I know something" line was spontaneous. "He was good on the specifics and the 'meta' message," Shrum told me. For instance, in a later debate Kerry and Weld were in a detailed tussle over their respective proposals for Social Security. Finally Kerry said, "Senator Kennedy and I see this the same way"—which was what the Massachusetts audience needed to hear.

"He is an acrobat," Weld told me, summing up Kerry's performance in the debates. "He is well informed, and he's not easily stampeded. And he is very, very quick. Don't think for a moment that he and I did not throw eighty-five surprise kitchen sinks at each other in the course of eight debates. And I don't recall him ever getting flustered or ever being seriously thrown off his pins." Kerry's performance is remarkably consistent—question by question, debate by debate, year by year. Few dramatic highs, but even fewer embarrassing lows.

"I've wondered in the past whether, outside New England, Senator Kerry's voice would strike people as too aristocratic in tone or choice of words," Weld said. "I wondered whether because of that he was ever going to travel in the South or the Bible Belt. But certainly in the Democratic primaries that issue seemed to be behind him. If anything, he came across as the tough guy. Good tough, not bad tough."

Weld's question gets to the heart of the challenge for John Kerry in these debates—indeed, in the campaign as a whole. That is, the challenge of making people like him. George W. Bush has barely even tried to convince voters that he is the master of details or policy. But he has consistently and effectively conveyed two more-basic themes: that he will be strong—or "resolute," as he often puts it—in defending the nation; and that he is a likeable man. Few find him as likeable as, say, Ronald Reagan; and a significant fraction of the public does not like him one bit. But enough Americans like him sufficiently to have kept his job-approval ratings high throughout his Administration, despite obvious problems with the economy and in Iraq.

John Kerry will leave no one wondering whether he is in command of details and policy. Sitting through his debate tapes was like watching a multi-day champion knock off challengers on Jeopardy. However obscure the topic, he had a policy—and a criticism of his opponent's. But Democrats are well aware that although expertise was part of Bill Clinton's appeal, it is not enough by itself. It didn't save Jimmy Carter against Ronald Reagan, or Michael Dukakis against the first George Bush, or Al Gore against the second. And it won't do the job for Kerry without some combination of strength and likeability.

I was surprised to find that the more I saw of Kerry in action, the better I thought of him on both counts. He has pushed his Vietnam record so hard for so long that many people are tired of hearing about his courage and readiness for conflict. But the warrior persona that comes through in his debates is appealing. He is not a happy warrior in the political sense, like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, or John Edwards. Instead, as the vanquished William Weld put it, he is "good tough." In his words and arguments Kerry is always attacking and moving forward, but in demeanor he is unruffled—like a confident detective or prosecutor relentlessly building his case.

As for likeability, there is no disguising this problem for Kerry. American aristocrats come in a wide variety of political personalities: those so cool they inspire envy (John F. Kennedy); those whose raucous enjoyment of upper-class privilege has a kind of mainstream appeal (Teddy Roosevelt, William Weld); those with an august, patrician duty to serve (the Taft and Stevenson dynasties); those who reinvent themselves as average Joes (the first George Bush, with his pork rinds; the current President Bush, with a Texas twang shared by none of his siblings).

By family background, John Kerry is less an aristocrat than many of these people. Despite some Winthrop lineage, he is seen as upper-class mainly for two reasons: because he sounds that way, and because both his wives have been very rich. His fancy educational pedigree—St. Paul's, Yale, Skull and Bones—was more a way of entering elite levels than a reflection of his having started there, like Weld or Bush. Unlike the Bushes, who reinvented themselves as normal Americans, Kerry reinvented himself as an American aristocrat, with the cool bearing that comes with the role. He will never be a warm character. But I liked him better after seeing his controlled, intent mastery of the virtual combat of debate.

These things are known about the 2004 debates: There will be at most four of them—three presidential, one vice-presidential. Often incumbents insist on even fewer, and four years ago the Bush team waited until Labor Day before accepting terms for any at all. A bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates sets the ground rules, but it has no enforcement power and must negotiate with parties and candidates in each election cycle. This time the commission tried to outflank everyone by announcing dates and sites last fall, and putting the sites in swing states: Florida, Ohio, Missouri, and Arizona. Neither campaign wants to be the one blamed by the people of, say, St. Louis for canceling a debate they had been counting on.

The campaigns will wrangle over rules nearly until the first debate, which is scheduled for September 30 in Miami. In the negotiations for past debates some candidate has always vetoed the idea of a "Lincoln-Douglas" exchange, in which candidates directly question each other. The commission has several times persuaded candidates to accept a single-moderator format, rather than a panel of questioners —a vast improvement from the public's point of view, because the moderator doesn't have to worry about competing against his colleagues for airtime and can concentrate more fully on what the candidates are saying. A moderator with the right touch can back away and let the candidates address each other directly as the discussion evolves. The Bush team will ask for debates limited to specific topics—foreign policy, the economy. The Kerry team will ask for, but not get, open-ended sessions in which any subject can be raised. The Bush team will look for staging to conceal the fact that the President is so much shorter than Kerry: they may ask for a seated debate, or they may build a small "pitcher's mound" behind the President's podium, like the one built for Michael Dukakis in 1988, to put his head on a level with his opponent's.

This summer the candidates will go to "debate camp," with surrogate adversaries. Most Democrats I spoke with said that Kerry should practice against John Edwards. William Weld told me that the Bush team should choose as a surrogate Kerry "somebody who's awfully fast on their feet—Phil Gramm, Newt Gingrich." George Bush will try in his every answer to convey "I am a wartime President, and I am strong." John Kerry will try to convey "You don't know what you are doing, and you are weak."

But other things are not known: Whether one of the men, under pressure, will reveal something about his character he did not intend to reveal. Whether John Kerry will try to challenge Bush directly on the one issue shown to disconcert him: the contrast in their war records. And whether there is anything the challenger can do to offset the incumbent's advantage.