As last Thursday’s presidential debate recedes into the distance, a couple of questions still float in the minds of partisans on each side. What did Kerry take out of his pocket? And what was that bulge under Bush’s jacket?
Kerry first, since his mystery seems pretty well solved. I’m not going to bother linking to him, but unprincipled attention-whore Drudge, along with a smattering of Bush-leaning webloggers, made a big deal about that moment when Kerry approached the podium and reached into his coat to remove something. I noticed the move while watching the debate in realtime; there wasn’t anything sneaky about it, and the subsequent movement of his hands made it pretty clear what he’d taken out: a pen.
Drudge led the speculation in another direction: it could have been prepared notes, notes that would clearly have given Kerry an unfair advantage in the debate. And even if it was a pen, pointed out Drudge, pens were explicitly forbidden by the 32 pages of debate rules agreed to by both sides beforehand, which stated quite clearly that the debaters had to deliver up all pens, paper, whatever, to the debate organizers in advance. The items could then be inspected, cleared for fairness, and left on the podium. No pulling anything from your pocket. That would be (at least potentially) unfair.
Yeah, well, okay. You caught him. Kerry broke the rules. And subsequent investigation reveals that, as was clear from the outset, what Kerry pulled from his pocket was, in fact, a pen.
So, I’m glad we got that out in the open. Good work, righties. The republic has been saved, once again, by your eternal vigilance.
Turning to Bush’s alleged rule-breaking, the situation gets both murkier and more sinister. There’s no conclusive evidence, but the allegations circling in the Bush-hating part of blogland are significantly juicier. Basically, there’s actually reason to believe that Bush may have used some kind of hidden wireless receiver at the debate to get outside help on his responses.
Which makes even me pause for a tinfoil-hat check. I realize how this sounds. At a minimum, there’s the objection that if Bush was getting his answers fed to him from off-stage, they would have been better answers. But set that objection aside for a moment, and consider the evidence.
Midway through the debate, in the middle of a 90-second rebuttal to a particularly strong Kerry attack on the way Bush misled the country in the run-up to the Iraq war, Bush said the following:
I think what is misleading is to say you can lead and succeed in Iraq if you keep changing your positions on this war, and he has. As the politics change, his positions change. And that’s not how a commander in chief acts.
I — let me finish. The intelligence I looked at was the same intelligence my opponent looked at. It’s the very same intelligence.
Now, the weird thing is, no one was trying to interrupt Bush at that point. As far as you can tell from the televised feed, neither Kerry, Lehrer, nor the audience was doing anything to hinder Bush. None of his little lights had come on. (Update: Per the later Salon piece by Dave Lindorff — Bush’s bulge — the first light actually had come on at that point. Sorry about the disinformation.) So who was he talking to? (Audio available here, if you missed it: Bush blows debate! Talks to Rove in earpiece!)
There was also the moment when Bush, again having been bloodied by a particularly sharp attack, swung quickly into action, faced into the camera, then said, “Yeah, uh, I, uh –” and then stopped, staring straight ahead, for five… long… seconds… before actually beginning his response. (Jon Stewart got a huge laugh when he ran the clip on The Daily Show’s post-debate coverage. But it was very much one of those “funny because it’s actually kind of scary” moments.) So yeah, maybe he was just “gathering his thoughts.” But five seconds is a really long time. And it’s not like his manner gave the impression of someone thinking up a really juicy rejoinder. It looked, I swear, much more like someone listening to a secret voice inside his head telling him what to say, anxious for it to hurry up and finish so he could tee off on Kerry.
Okay, okay. It’s nuts, I know. But then we have “the bulge.” Check out the images, and the accompanying discussion of past situations in which Bush has been caught more or less red-handed being fed answers via earpiece: The voice in Bush’s ear.
Now, I’m not saying this is a slam-dunk case. I’m not sure it even rises much beyond the Drudge level of silliness. (Well, actually, I am sure it does that. But that’s a very low bar.) But think about it for a minute: If this is true, if Bush really did come into the debate wired to receive secret promptings, that’s… just… I dunno; actually worse than I would have expected of him. And that’s a very high bar indeed.
Anyway, it’s something to think about as we head into Friday’s rematch.