Sunday, October 10, 2004

Sunday Reading

The Sunday New York Times has some interesting articles that look beyond the polls in the presidential race.

  • The cover story in the magazine is Kerry’s Undeclared War: “John Kerry has a thoughtful, forward-looking theory about terrorism and how to fight it. But can it resonate with Americans in the post-9/11 world?”
  • David E. Sanger looks at Bush’s refusal to admit that he has made any mistakes.

    Until sometime early in the summer, President Bush and his advisers sporadically wrestled with a fundamental choice: Was it smarter to go into the final months of the election campaign confessing to considerable error in decisions leading up to the invasion of Iraq, and in early calculations about how best to occupy the country? Or would the president – “not a man given to backward-looking introspection,” as one close aide put it – be better off conceding only the smallest errors of judgment, and focusing the electorate on the hope of a bright future for Iraq and the whole Middle East?

    Mr. Bush chose the second option. To choose otherwise, one of Mr. Bush’s advisers said the other day, would be “to give John Kerry the opening he was waiting for.”

    But now, in the final 23 days of the campaign, that decision has come to look far riskier than it did in the flush of handing Iraq back to Iraqis. Win or lose, when the history of the 2004 Bush campaign is written, it may turn out that the bet about how to talk about the war will prove pivotal. Mr. Bush held his bet through the presidential debate Friday, declining a questioner’s invitation to describe any mistake he had made.


    Mr. Bush’s decision to hang tough has echoes of the strategy used by another president from Texas. In the 1968 campaign, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey began edging back from the Johnson Administration’s plan to admit no fault with its policy in Vietnam. He got an angry call from his boss, who threatened to “dry up every Democratic dollar from Maine to California.”

    “In retirement, Johnson insisted to friends that it was Humphrey’s speech at Salt Lake City that lost him the election,” said Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, “because it conceded that the administration that Humphrey was a part of may have been wrong.”

    “There weren’t many others who agreed with Johnson,” Mr. Beschloss notes.

    Now, the 2004 election may hinge on how many Americans agree with Mr. Bush’s take on the history of the past two years.

  • Frank Rich examines how James A. Baker III has turned George W. Bush into Richard Nixon.

    It was Mr. Baker’s job to negotiate the 32-page debate agreement with Vernon Jordan, representing the Kerry camp, and by all accounts, the Bush campaign got almost everything it wanted. Yet as we now know, every Bush stipulation backfired, from the identically sized podiums that made the 5-foot-11 president look as if he needed a booster stool, to the flashing “Time’s up!” lights that emphasized Mr. Kerry’s uncharacteristic brevity and Mr. Bush’s need to run out the clock by repeating stock phrases ad infinitum and ad absurdum.

    The most revealing Baker error, though, was to insist that the first debate be about the president’s purported strong suit, foreign affairs, instead of domestic policy. Did no one anticipate the likelihood that Iraq might once again explode that day, as it has on so many recent others? Insurgent attacks have gone from a daily average of 6 in May 2003 to as high as 87 in August. And so, as Adam Nagourney of The Times reported, “In the hours leading up to the debate, television images of aides to Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry were mixed with images of corpses and bloody children from Baghdad,” on a day when some 35 Iraqi children were slaughtered by car bombs. With this montage grinding away in the media mix, Mr. Kerry probably could have gotten away with even more inconsistent positions about the war than he did that night.

    Mr. Baker isn’t responsible for the other split-screen visuals that undid Mr. Bush on Sept. 30: the reaction shots during the debate itself. They were forbidden by the 32-page agreement. But earlier that week, the networks, including Fox News, publicly announced they would violate that rule. The Bush campaign has since said that the president knew this was coming, but if so, that makes his lack of self-discipline seem all the more self-destructive, or perhaps out of touch. He couldn’t have provided a better out-take promo for the DVD release of “Fahrenheit 9/11” had Michael Moore been directing it himself.

    Mr. Bush could recoup by Nov. 2 for all manner of reasons, including his showing in the subsequent debates, both yet to come as I write. John F. Kerry is no John F. Kennedy. But the liberal blog Daily Kos had the big picture right: on Sept. 30, “months of meticulous image manipulation” by the Bush-Cheney forces went “down the toilet in 90 minutes.”

  • Matthew I. Pinzur of the Miami Herald reviews the first 100 days of the administration of Dr. Rudy Crew, superintendent of schools of Miami-Dade County and the whirlwind of change he has brought to the nation’s fourth-largest school district. (This is a story close to home for me in more ways than one.)

    Football picks: The Dolphins will lose to the Patriots – they’re playing at Foxboro and the Dolphins have an offensive line that is truly, well, offensive, and the Pats are the best team in football so far. The Lions face the undefeated Atlanta Falcons. Yeah, that’s a tough call.

    The weather looks good across most of the country today except for the Gulf Coast where Tropical Storm Matthew is coming ashore, so get out and do something once you’ve done your reading. My car club has a show today at the Shops at Sunset Place in South Miami from noon to six, so you know where I’ll be this afternoon…once I finish the crossword.