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DEBATE: Whiner-in-Chief | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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DEBATE: Whiner-in-Chief

It appears that George W. Bush is tired of being president.

His weariness and frustration with the job was evident throughout last night's first presidential debate of the 2004 campaign. Whenever the discussion turned to questions about his management of the occupation of Iraq, Bush said, "It's hard work." Why didn't he anticipate the disaster? "It's hard work." Considering the mounting death toll, was the Iraq invasion worth it? "It's hard work."

By the end of the night, the sullen president had repeated the "hard work" line at least nine times, using it as frequently as he did those stock talking points about "progress" in Iraq and Democrat John Kerry's "mixed messages." And, in contrast to his rote recitation of the talking points, Bush's grumbling about how difficult it is to do his job did not seem at all insincere. At least on this point, Bush was speaking the truth. For George W. Bush, serving as president at this time in history is very hard work.

What was striking last night was the marked distinction between the world-weary performance of the president and the engaged presence of John Kerry. The Democratic challenger did not suggest that the challenges of cleaning up the mess in Iraq would be easily met. But his answers to questions about the quagmire suggested that he did not find the notion of tackling those challenges nearly so daunting as does the current occupant of the Oval Office.

The night should have belonged to Bush. National security is supposed to be the president's strong suit. Yet, Bush only arrived with 30 minutes of material for a 90 minute debate. And he had a very hard time stretching.

For the most part, it was Kerry who did the heavy lifting when it came to defining the issues. And, in so doing, he controlled the course of the debate.

Kerry was especially effective in arguing that the invasion and occupation of Iraq had diverted troops and resources from the fundamental fights of the war on terror. But the Democrat also made the failure of the president to build a genuine global coalition in support of the war more of an issue. And he was devastating when he suggested, after detailing the flaws in the administration's strategy, that the president's promise for the next four years was: "more of the same."

Kerry was weaker when it came to explaining what his "less of the same" would actually look like. But he trumped Bush on what should have been one of the president's strong points: homeland security. Kerry did this by laying something of a trap for Bush. The Democrat suggested that tax cuts for the wealthy should be rolled back to pay for homeland security initiatives such as securing bridges and tunnels, checking containers coming through US ports and assuring that all cargo on airplanes is inspected before it is loaded onto planes. "We didn't need the tax cut," Kerry said. "America needed to be safe." Bush's response was to grumble about how Kerry was going to pay for "all these promises."

From an issue standpoint, it was the most telling moment of the debate. Kerry was promising to keep America safe. Bush was promising to keep cutting taxes for the rich.

Bush should have seen that one coming. But to do that he would have had to be paying attention. As he slumped against the podium through much of the debate, however, the president seemed every bit as anxious as his father--when the elder Bush got caught checking his watch during a 1992 debate--to be done with this painful 90-minute political exercise. And he gave the impression of not being all that much more excited about the four-year political exercise to which reelection would doom him.

When Bush complained that the job of being president is "hard work," he was entirely believable. Yet, when Kerry bragged about how he'd "get the job done," he was equally believable--and a good deal more appealing.

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John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. Former White House counsel John Dean, the author of Worse Than Watergate, says, "This page-turner closes the case: Cheney is our de facto president." Arianna Huffington, the author of Fanatics and Fools, calls Dick, "The first full portrait of The Most Powerful Number Two in History, a scary and appalling picture. Cheney is revealed as the poster child for crony capitalism (think Halliburton's no bid, cost-plus Iraq contracts) and crony democracy (think Scalia and duck-hunting)."

Dick: The Man Who Is President is available from independent bookstores nationwide and at www.amazon.com

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