More than any other events on the campaign trail this year, the debates have drawn intense public interest. Viewers are eager for something more than the carefully packaged junk that usually passes for political coverage -- the nonstop media mix of countless photo-ops, canned speeches, evasive interviews, calculated sound-bites, programmed national conventions and manipulative TV commercials.
There's a lot wrong with the debates, especially the narrow range of views. But on the plus side, with no editing and no TelePrompTer, the contenders are on their own for 90 minutes. After watching a debate, people have gotten a look at the core of a presidential campaign's artifice -- the candidate himself.
The exalted media persona of George W. Bush thrives on edited snippets along with scripted speeches and rousing deliveries of one-liners in front of adoring crowds. And the hunkered-down, hunched-over gravity of Dick Cheney is unaccustomed to direct challenge. But the debate format has forced both men to come down from their pedestals.
Bush and Cheney have been stumbling when confronted with information about their deceptions on Iraq. Their biggest enemies are memory and videotape. Many voters remember the Bush administration's unrelenting claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. And when networks replay their prewar statements about WMDs, or supposed links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, the impacts can be devastating.
The most concise bumper sticker in the country right now says, simply, "Bush lied." The president likes to pretend that he's regally clothed with credibility. By now, at least half of the voting-age population can see through the finery; the emperor has no clothes.
Realities of Iraq are now horrendous, and the future looks very bleak. Yet almost no one in a position of political power -- or media prominence -- seems willing to fully acknowledge that the United States cannot win this war. From all indications, the suffering has just begun.
Beneath the red-white-and-blue rhetoric is determination not to "lose" a country with 112 billion barrels of oil under the sand. And there is equal determination for the Pentagon to establish more than a dozen U.S. military bases in Iraq. Real democracy in Iraq would thwart both aims -- since most Iraqi people don't want U.S. troops in their country. From the vantage point of the Bush administration, only phony democracy will do.
John Kerry and John Edwards are whistling past a very large graveyard when they speak of seeking "victory" in Iraq. It's not going to happen. Among Iraqis, the resistance is already too wide and too deep; the resentments and rage are already too entrenched.
Here at home, the Republicans are hell-bent on justifying the invasion of Iraq. This is "Bush's war," and -- given the proven mentalities of the Bush-Cheney regime -- it's hard to imagine that the anti-war movement could force a rational response from the White House during a second term of George W. Bush. There's more potential under a Kerry administration for the anti-war movement to help create political conditions that could induce the president to pull back from Iraq.
Ironically, from a journalist for a mainstream American news outlet, one of the most cogent accounts of present-day Iraq was not intended for publication. In late September, when a Wall Street Journal reporter e-mailed a letter from Baghdad to some friends, it ended up on various websites. "Despite President Bush's rosy assessments, Iraq remains a disaster," Farnaz Fassihi wrote. "If under Saddam it was a 'potential' threat, under the Americans it has been transformed to 'imminent and active threat,' a foreign policy failure bound to haunt the United States for decades to come."
Even the blunt descriptions in major U.S. media seem evasive when compared to Fassihi's candid summary: "One could argue that Iraq is already lost beyond salvation. For those of us on the ground it's hard to imagine what if anything could salvage it from its violent downward spiral. The genie of terrorism, chaos and mayhem has been unleashed onto this country as a result of American mistakes and it can't be put back into a bottle."
By now, the failure of the U.S. effort in Iraq should be clear, whether you believe the invasion of Iraq was noble or nefarious. Posturing to the contrary -- whether by politicians or pundits -- cannot change the facts on the ground or the future on the horizon. The earlier those facts can be candidly acknowledged, the more lives can be saved.
To an extraordinary extent, George W. Bush has shown that he is willing -- even eager -- to be accountable only to his right-wing base. Of course, if he wins on Nov. 2, we will have an undiminished responsibility to build a strong anti-war movement. But between now and Election Day, the world is depending on us to do what we can to oust the current gang of war-makers from the White House.