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.