Describe the Rock, Rather than Describe Your Thinking About the Rock
OK, I saw the debate last night, and listened to the talking heads. I was most struck by David Brooks on PBS. He pontificated that the President had wide themes (liberty on the march, Kerry is a liberal poopy-head, etc), and that Kerry was a factual policy wonk without a core message. To be fair, Mark Shields said the same thing. I thought this was a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.
What do I mean? The illuminating question
of the evening was:
"[After 9-11] it seemed to me that the country came together as I've never seen it come together since World War II. But some of that seems to have melted away. I think it's fair to say we've become pretty polarized, perhaps because of the political season. But if you were elected president, or whoever is elected president, will you set a priority in trying to bring the nation back together? Or what would be your attitude on that?"
The President's answer was to basically shake his head in wonderment and plaintatively riff about "losing that loving feeling," blame the entrenched interests, and the "tough" nature of Washington DC (shades of "hard work..."). What I found illuminating is Kerry's reply. Following the dictum of a visual medium to "show rather than explain" I watched as I saw how a Kerry administration would act to get things done in Washington. I was impressed not by his claim that "I can work in a bipartisan manner" but by what he did. He complimented the President on his ability to act as a unifying presence in the days after 9-11.
When two people have become estranged from one another, any rapproachment must begin with the first step of acknowledgement and acceptence of the Other as being like oneself and also as being different to oneself. Kerry's ability to see the good in the President is an example of this principle in action. I could see (via the split screen) that the President was not expecting this, and I felt (and perhaps this was only my projection of things) that the debate softened--just a tad--after this exchange. Kerry helped this lessening of tension by refraining from directly blaming the President for the mess, rather saying that: "I regret to say that the president who called himself a uniter, not a divider, is now presiding over the most divided America in the recent memory of our country. " Kerry showed us that he could actually unite the country. He understands the ethical trajectory of reconciliation. Bush does not.
The President did not have an answer to this fundamental and pressing question. And the commentators I saw last night did not even pick up on what had happened. But my guess is that many undecided voters did--at least subliminally. And whether they articulate it or not, I suspect that many will wake up in a day or three, and say: "Hmm, I am not certain why, but I think Kerry can get the job done."
And what is that job? Safety is part of it. Defeating terrorists and Islamo-facsism is part of it. A sane economic policy is part of it. But the biggest part of it is the will to do what needs to be done. And that will depends on a sustainable unity built on rational emotion to "stay the rational course." Some obscure politician once said in a different context: "A house divided against itself cannot stand."
If the country stays divided like this over the running of the "War on Terror" this country will lose. The last debate made this point with absolute clarity--if one had the eyes and ears to see and hear it.
That was Kerry's theme.