After months of flawless execution in a well-orchestrated campaign, President Bush had to stand alone in an unpredictable debate. He had traveled the country, appearing before adoring pre-selected crowds, delivered a carefully crafted acceptance speech before his convention, and approved tens of millions of dollars in TV commercials to belittle his opponent. In the lead, Bush believed he had only to assert his superiority to end the contest once and for all.
But onstage the president ran out of talking points. Unable to explain the logic for his policies, or think on his feet, he was thrown back on the raw elements of his personality and leadership style.
Every time he was confronted with ambivalence, his impulse was to sweep it aside. He claimed he must be followed because he is the leader. Fate, in the form of September 11, had placed authority in his hands as a man of destiny. Skepticism, pragmatism and empiricism are enemies. Absolute faith prevails over open-ended reason, subjectivity over fact. Belief in belief is the ultimate sacrament of his political legitimacy.
In the split TV screen, how Bush felt was written all over his face. His grimaces exposed his irritation and anger at being challenged. Lacking intellectual stamina and repeating points as though on a feedback loop, he tried to close argument by assertion. With no one interrupting him, he protested, "Let me finish" - a phrase he occasionally deploys to great effect before the cowed White House press corps.
John Kerry was set up beforehand as Bush's foil: long-winded, dour, dull. But the Kerry who showed up was crisp, nimble and formidable. His thrusts brought out Bush's rigidity and stubbornness. The more Bush pleaded his own decisiveness, the more he appeared reactive.
Time and again, as he tried to halt Kerry, he accused him of "mixed signals" and "inconsistency." For Bush, certainty equals strength. Kerry responded with a devastating deconstruction of Bush's epistemology. Nothing like this critique of pure reason has ever been heard in a presidential debate. "It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong," said Kerry.
Kerry's analysis of Bush's "colossal error of judgment" in Iraq was systematic, factual and historical. The coup de grace was the citation of the president's father's actions in the Gulf war. "You know," said Kerry, "the president's father did not go into Iraq, into Baghdad, beyond Basra. And the reason he didn't is, he said - he wrote in his book - because there was no viable exit strategy. And he said our troops would be occupiers in a bitterly hostile land. That's exactly where we find ourselves today." With that, Kerry touched on Bush's most ambivalent relationship, the father he recently called "the wrong father," compared to the "Higher Father".
In flustered response, Bush simply insisted on his authority. "I just know how this world works ... there must be certainty from the US president." He reverted to his claim that September 11 justified the invasion of Iraq because "the enemy" - Saddam Hussein - "attacked us." A stunned but swift-footed Kerry observed: "The president just said something extraordinarily revealing and frankly very important ... he just said, 'The enemy attacked us'. Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us." In his effort to banish all doubt, Bush had retreated into a substitute reality, a delusional version of Iraq, ultimately faith-based.
Bush's attack lines on Kerry did not describe the surprising man standing opposite him. They had been effective last week, but were suddenly shopworn. But Bush couldn't adjust. The greater his frustration in the debate, the more frequently he spoke of his difficulties in coping with "my job." Ten times he spoke of his "hard work": listening to intelligence briefings, talking to allies, having to comfort a bereaved mother whose son was killed in Iraq.
Near the end, Kerry praised Bush for his public service, and his wife, and his daughters. "I'm trying to put a leash on them," Bush said. That was hard work, too. "Well, I don't know," replied Kerry, who also has daughters. "I've learned not to do that, Mr President." Even in the banter, Kerry gained the upper-hand.
But Bush lost more than control in the first debate. He has lost the plot.
· Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Clinton, is Washington bureau chief of www.salon.com
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004