This one may yet be close. But as of Thursday's second debate, the conventions of telepolitics clearly point to a forthcoming Bush victory.Why?
The Los Angeles encounter told us more than the first one at Winston-Salem, N.C., three weeks ago. It was gentler, kinder and it clarified a few issues. But in the age of populist media politics, the spoken pales by comparison with the unspoken. The latter has been Michael S. Dukakis' undoing.
The governor simply was not created for an age and political arena where political leadership has been redefined by and for television. He looks very gubernatorial, but not, alas, very presidential.
There is really no animation about him. When he bleeds, it is droplets of ice water. Nothing showed that better than the opening gambit of the evening. His deepest emotions had to be stirred by a stupid, vulgar question about whether he would still be against the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. The very boorishness of the question should have angered him; and it would have helped him to let the anger show.
But Dukakis responded as if he had been asked his phone number. Like all his answers it was cool, cerebral, reasonable--and dull. The body language--the range of gesture with which he frames his words--are as constricted as a child's vocabulary.
Bush by contrast comes across like a scuffed old pair of sensible shoes--a bit slack and goofy and silly, but ever animated, expressive and revealing. His answers are seldom as detailed, and never as grammatical, as the Duke's. But he projects feeling. He has moving parts.
How much do these distinctions have to do with competence in the presidency? As much (and as little) as modern media campaigns have to do with the art of governing--everything and nothing.
Bush as President would be a gamble. His choice of Dan Quayle, a drastically underqualified vice presidential nominee, shows it. And this is not the only example of Bush's tendency to impulsiveness and bad judgment. But Bush would not bore or tire us.
Dukakis? You could rely on him for the ministerial work of the presidency. All the invisible tasks that distinguish good administration from bad would be diligently performed. You might sometimes dislike his choices, but you could be sure they would be thoughtful. But oh, the ordeal, the dreariness, of having to face the iceman night after night after night on the tube, when you thirst for the saving graces of wit and warmth.
It is, in short, a crazy kind of choice we have before us, made crazier by the way we seem to be making it. Theatrics in presidential politics should not matter so much, though in truth it always has. The difference today is that theater comes alarmingly close to being all there is.