The First Bush/Kerry Debate: Highlights

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Ms. Goodman is a graduate student at Concordia University and an HNN intern.

The Instant Polls

CBS: Kerry the winner by 44-26 percent.
ABC: Kerry the winner by 45-36 percent.
CNN/Gallup: Kerry the winner by 53-37 percent.

Candidate Soundbites

John F. Kerry

  • "This president has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment. And judgment is what we look for in the president of the United States of America."
  • "Well, you know, when I talked about the $87 billion, I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?"
  • "This president, I don't know if he really sees what's happening over there."

George W. Bush

  • "He voted to authorize the use of force and now says it's the wrong war at the wrong time. . . . I don't think you can lead if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send to our troops?"
  • "The only thing consistent about my opponent's position is he's been inconsistent.''

Historians' Comments

Arthur Schlesinger Jr

  • "Foreign policy has always been on the margin," but this time "it haunts the conscience of the American people — 9/11 and the question whether the war in Iraq is worth the cost."

Henry Graff (Columbia University presidential historian)

  • "[Kerry] is going to have to tell us why he voted yes and no." On Kerry's changed position concerning the war in Iraq.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson (director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania)

  • "I see a clash, a rhetorical clash between a person whose strength was rhetorically as a governor and a person whose strength is as a senator -- a businessman versus a lawyer.”

Stephen Hess (presidential historian and a Senior Fellow Emeritus at the Brookings Institution, commenting on CBS)

  • "There may be some gain on the part of people who were not as familiar or aware particularly of Kerry who now get a sense of his seriousness and articulateness."
  • "I think it was a reaffirming experience for listeners. People who went in intending to vote for Kerry will have thought that he did well, and the same will be true of those who were the Bush supporters. But if the status quo is maintained, that is actually good for the president, since he went into last night up in the polls."
  • "The president had been so incredibly skillful up to this point in trying to make the campaign a referendum on the challenger, so to that degree Kerry righted the situation somewhat. So that was undoubtedly helpful. But still, I must say, I would be surprised if there were any major changes in the polls based on this."
  • "My impression is that very few Americans are going to change their vote. They made their positions clear. They in a sense cancelled each other out."

Richard Norton Smith (director of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum on PBS)

  • "This was a debate about large issues. You heard George Bush, the nationalist debating John Kerry, the globalist and I thought Kerry did, his initials are not JFK for nothing. He was [chair] with John F. Kennedy in 1960 'we can do better.'"
  • "I thought Bush took an almost Reaganesque approach when he was repeatedly coming back to his few basic defining differences between these two candidates."
  • "Style does trump substance as history does teach that. I thought Kerry was the smartest kid in the class and I thought that the president was a slightly world weary teacher occasionally brushing him off."
  • "No, and I'll say that's a good thing. We are always griping about the fact that soundbites have crowded out substance. I don't think there are many sound bites from tonight, and I'm not sure that's a bad thing."

Ellen Fitzpatrick (professor of history at the University of New Hampshire on PBS)

  • "I think it was a far more substantive debate that we have seen in American Political History in many, many, many a year, and I think it is extremely important to remember that the last time the United States was in a massive and extensive effort in nation building and the context of war with an ongoing insurgency was in Vietnam. The period of 1964 to 1972 when that war waged there were no presidential debates, that was a coincidence but we never had the opportunity to see this stark contrast drawn. The American people have been given that opportunity tonight."
  • "It is extremely difficult in this instance when you have John Kerry saying this war was a mistake, but he is not saying, therefore he will withdraw. He is saying it is a mistake that now needs to be fixed. There he can't draw as sharp a distinction with this president."
  • "I thought that Kerry had close to a zinger when he said I may make a mistake in my words but you made a mistake in intervening in this war."

Michael Beschloss (on PBS)

  • "I don't think the debate was that decisive, I don't think it was a debate that will change many minds, cause people to say gee I see all sorts of things in George Bush and John Kerry that I didn't see before."
  • "The one thing I really think it did was this, these debates really drew a contrast between temperaments that is at times what a debate does well, and I often time felt as if I was sort of watching Adlai Stevenson debate John Wayne."
  • "And you also had two guys each trying to knock the other out. Kerry saying that any President that has made all these mistakes doesn't deserve another term, and George Bush saying don't you know John, you can't be a president, you can't be a commander in chief if you keep on changing your mind and changing your core convictions."
  • "And it wasn't very much show business, and I think it was wonderful because I think that tends to usually overwhelm everything that you hear. I think this was a debate that you can hear for 90 minutes and be proud to be an American."

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More Comments:

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

The quotes here are entertaining and sometimes illuminating but do not add up to an assessment. Herewith therefore a somewhat more comprehensive analysis:

G.W. Bush has been trying make a case for his election next month based on "strength" and "resolve", but he often came across in the Florida debate as testy and defensive. His accomplishments on the job are minimal (Is the world really better off with Saddam gone ? Not any cost, not regardless of what comes after him in Iraq, both very big and dubious unknowns at this point) so he is trying to focus on character and reliability and future plans, but he looks less credible than Kerry there too. Of course, both are politicians full of distorting simplifications and using rhetoric to cover a lack of clarity or depth, but Kerry in this gathering looked more like an actor, Bush more like an impostor. The challenger seemed more like an incumbent President than the actual incumbent. President Bush, who, according to tradition ought to be "presidential" and "above the fray", has only a poor record to run on, so his strategy is an unstatesmanlike denigrating of his opponent, which of course can't be very easily done face to face on national TV.

Kerry has manifold flaws, not the least of which is inconsistency, but in a fair match up, side by, side, no handlers, spin doctors, or prefabricated innuendoes,
those flaws pale beside the disasters of his incompetent opponent who kept talking about how he had increased spending for this or that (as if public problems can be solved simply by throwing tax dollars at them). The "War President", who could not keep quite pull off his carefully rehearsed nuanced attempt to indirectly merge Saddam and Osama, met the real soldier, the C student met the A student, the proven failure met his hopeful replacement, and the world watched, saw, and will remember. It is doubtful whether votes were shifted, but it is very possible that momentum has.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007


I think you are one of most reasonable, objective, and articulate commenters on HNN, and therefore hope you will consider the following criticism in the constructive sense in which it is intended.

Your many prior posts (I won't say "excessive", but you are at risk of approaching my quantity which probably has been) make it clear that you are a well-informed and concerned citizen. The open-minded reader who might take the time to read and ponder those comments (a fairly rare phenomenon I am afraid) is not going to believe you when you say -as you do here, and not for the first time- that you are an "undecided voter".

If you think, for reasons of job security or whatever, that it is inappropriate for you to make any public endorsements of specific candidates or pieces of pending legislation, then certainly you should refrain from doing so. But, you can avoid stating such beliefs or opinions without pretending that you haven't been able to formulate them at all (John Dean, for example, takes this approach in his book "Worse than Watergate", which I think you have read (and mostly agreed with and therefore probably realized months ago that John Kerry could not possibly be still worse yet) ). Of course, you also have every right to reserve until election day itself your absolute final choice about how you will mark a ballot, but to call yourself "undecided" makes you sound uninvolved, uninformed, or indecisive, none of which ring true in any way to one who has read a fair number of your posts here.

By the way, I don't know if you'll get any takers here, but it is an interesting idea to try to see if any Bush supporters might be open-minded enough to think thoughtfully about issues of excessive secrecy and leadership quality. I suspect that many such people have already ceased being Bush supporters.

Now for a few remarks on your points:

I agree that there is an inverse link between an obsession about loyalty and secrecy, and management effectiveness. There is, however, an electoral college and swing states to think about, and they should have priority for our attention for the next month.

Bush's electoral support is based mainly on fear and ignorance. These need to work in tandem, because most fearful but well-informed voters are likely, sooner or later, to come to a realization that the Bush Administration's actions in foreign policy and on the domestic economy have made the country more vulnerable than before. We do need to be concerned about issues such as excessive secrecy because the day may well come, and all too soon, when we have a president who is secretive, vindictive, stubborn, corrupt, and undemocratic (like Bush) but who is also charismatic, articulate and effective, at least for a time, in building up American power abroad and producing an economic boom at home. Fortunately, we are not at that stage now. We can strike a strong indirect blow against secrecy and the erosion of civil liberties, and without splitting hairs about such issues, by focusing instead on the blatantly obvious track record of incompetence racked up by those who also happen to be compulsively secretive, and make sure they are neither elected nor re-selected on November 2. At this point, as I see it, it is a matter of pragmatism.

As an integration back to my original point above, one might talk parenthetically, for example, about how secrecy and obsessive loyalty may have been contributing factors to the rush to invade Iraq in 2003 without a credible set of grounds, in disregard of needed foreign partners, without general public understanding and long-term commitment, and without a plan for how to put the "broken pottery" back together, i.e. focus on the practical effects of the disastrous bungling without going into detail (at this point) about the psychological origins of the many miscalculations and acts of arrogant and hypocritical imprudence. And, it could be left to the reader to infer the unstated but obvious conclusion that only a new management team can now have the credibility to clean up the mess.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

1. Your comment has nothing to do with Maarja's post and should be in a thread of its own (if not on a planet of its own).

2. Spell checkers are a very convenient invention of the 20th century.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Well Maarja, I should probably take my own advice and shut up for a while too, but I am afraid I must say that I am a bit disappointed with your rather wishy washy stance on the election. It is one thing to not want to divulge your ballot markings, but how can any intellectually alert, politically savvy, historically knowledgeable, and concerned citizen not have some pretty strong opinions after all that has happened in the last four years ? This is simply not a normal election year and I really don't think the usual calculus you are suggesting (degree of trust, strengths and weaknesses comparison, etc.) is really necessary. Kerry has approximately the combination of experience and leadership qualities of a slightly above average senator, Bush the leadership abilities of a slightly above average baseball owner plus four years of a slick sales job in Austin, and four years of pretending to be president while making a mess of almost every issue he has touched while in the White House.

This is allegedly a history site, but may I suggest a analogy with a geographical flavor ? Use your own places, but as an example, I would suggest:

1. The center of moderate, middle-of-the-road America is in Topeka.

2. The "traditional" Democratic Party (JFK, LBJ, Carter) is in Denver.

3. The "traditional" Republican Party (Nixon, Ford) is in St. Louis.

4. Reagan is in Louisville, Bush I in Springfield.

5. Clinton is in Omaha. Kerry is most probably somewhere between Des Moines and Duluth.

BUT...Where is W. ?

Bogota ?
Ellesmere Island ?
Asteroid Ceres ?
Planet Uranus ?

Whatever your topographical analogy or underlying political science model, W. is nowhere near the landscape of traditional American politics. You'd have to go back to at least Harding to locate a prior president this incompetent, probably back to King George III for a ruler as arrogant and stubborn, and to perhaps to General Braddock for a comparable display of hubris, recklessness and boneheadness.

I think he is going to lose because more than a few Republicans do not want to have to wait four more years to begin to overcome the serious damage he has done to their party and to our country.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007


We live in an age where an attention-deficit prone news media caters to instant gratification, decadent scandal-mongering and obsession with superstardom. But, we also still have a federal system of government, an intact constitution based on checks and balances, separated powers, and an enduring culture of individualism. The president of the United States is, by far the most powerful person in the world, potentially at least the greatest superduperstar of all, but he is also, by even farther, not the sole public decision-maker in America. The mess in Iraq and record budget deficits could not have happened, for example, without votes in Congress. Would it not be wiser to direct the civically necessary careful sorting through the "records and characteristics" and "metamessages" of candidates towards political races other than one, however vitally important, where assessing such characteristics is, frankly, a no-brainer (see above comments) for an informed, historically knowledgeable, and openminded voter ?

Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

Kerry's, or anyone else's complaints about the campaign in Iraq usually miss the point that the campaign in Iraq was just that, a campaign in the war against militant Islam, which attacked us on 9/11 and previousaly. In short, what some people call the war in Iraq was not a stand-alone war, but rather a campaign, an episode, in the larger context of the defensive war against militant Islam.

Of course, one of the ironies of the Iraqi campaign is that Saddam led, however brutal, a seculsr, fascist, Baath Party led, government rather an Islamic one. It was his secular gov't that fought the eight-year-long war, 1980-88, against Iran, thereby committing the forbidden offense of pitting Moslem against Moslem in a war.

Nonetheless, it remains true that Saddam's gov't having used the WMD of poison gas against both rebel Kurds & against Iran, during the 80-88 war was seeking to acquire both biological and nuclear WMD. He may not have actually acuired the latter two, but the evidence demonstrates he was seeking them. It doesn't take much of a leap into reality to presume that if indeed had he acquired biological &/or nuclear weapons, he would have used them. After all, he had more than oce used poison gas against his enemies.

As a consequence of Saddam's removal from power the Middle East & the world as a whole are safer than they were before he was booted out of power.

A second irony of the situation in Iraq is that much, if not most, of the opposition to the experiment in Western-style democracy in Iraq derives from non-Iraqi militant Islamists, who see such a gov't as a threat to Islam. It is clear that if representative democracy succeeds in Iraq, the entire Islamic world will eventually turned topsy-turvy. For one thing, there isn't a true representative democracy in the entire Islamic community. The closet to it are Indonesia & Turkey, both countries where the army doesn't hesitate to displace inconvent civilian gov'ts.

William . H. Leckie, Jr. - 10/6/2004

Well now!

As a former St. Louisan, I nearly fell out of my chair when I read Mr. Clarke's siting of "traditional Republicanism" in St. Louis, a place where in office tower lobbies in its affluent suburb, Clayton, Fox News screameth from screens on the walls, Limbaugh echoes from the cars and trucks of those poor guys whose air conditioners don't work, tuned to KMOX, "the Voice of St. Louis," a US Senator like Talent elected by an overwhelming margin in the old, crumbling town's sprawling 'burbs, but no matter.

I'm not sure that civic-class-style frameworks of choice are in the same universe or even parallel universes to this one. I'll admit a ruefullness, a sense of guilt even, at not being on my old home's inner-neighborhood streets campaigning this time round, as I was in 2000. But this is one election it's going to take some time to sort out.

Sitting here with my absentee ballot on the desk, still weary from getting up at 3 a.m. local to watch the debates live, I do feel very apprehensive about what could happen if Bush is at long last actually elected and 5-Deferment Dick is still a wartime regent. We can thank the Lord for the system of checks and balances Mr. Clarke rightly mentions.

Of one thing, though, I'm certain: If Kerry makes it in the electoral college, even with blatant partisan tampering to stop him--and I don't discount the possibility of extended legal wrangling after election day this time, either--the right'll make it almost impossible for him to govern.

We're in a situation where, unfortunately, we lack an adequate analytical language to describe what's happening, and I don't think any of us can be of much help to Ms. Krusten. And while I'm at it, the American punditocracy is downright an obstacle to understanding

Val Jobson - 10/4/2004

The world is not safer; Americans have killed tens of thousands of innocent Muslims; as a result of the massacres by Americans at Fallujah and elsewhere and the torture by Americans at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, millions of Muslims hate Americans and some of them are becoming terrorists who will kill Americans.

Mr. Livingston, you and Mr. Bush are living in a fairy tale, or maybe a story about a pet goat.

Maarja Krusten - 10/3/2004

Peter and any other readers: I wrote above, "it might have helped me understand how you all are making the best of what seem to be pretty bad choices." Let me clarify that. My use of the word "choices" refers to the necessity of balancing issues of character, competence, leadership skills, intelligence, etc. I use "bad choices" to mean that neither of the candidates has all the qualities I would like to see, not that I mean Bush or Kerry is a bad man. (I can tell that some of you do believe that one or the other is bad. I do not, it isn't that simple for me.)

My ideal President would have Kerry's or Nixon's intelligence, Clinton's empathy for and ability to relate to the people placed in his care, Reagan's temperament, and Bush's fortitude. Since that is the case, obviously, I am going to have to vote for a candidate who does not have all the qualities I would like to see in a leader. This makes me more inclined than in past elections to consider not just the candidates, but also the officials and advisors that surround the candidates, their approaches to accountability, the tactics used by the campaigns, etc. All these things provide metamessages and tell me something about the men who seek my vote. Maybe not all of you find it necessary to do that. Some of the people I know of are "one issue" voters (one votes simply on the issue of abortion, nothing else, even Iraq is not on her radar screen for purposes of voting this year), who never consider the stuff I'm talking about here.

And I will vote, I am not like some of my friends who say they don't want either and are tempted to sit out the election. (Admittedly, I mostly heard those comments before the first debate.) But when I decide, I'll never tell you whom I've decided to vote for because you're right, it is prudent for me not to do so. My primary interest here on HNN is to figure out the processes by which posters sort through the records and characteristics of the candidates. I was hoping to trigger a debate and to create a record that future students of this year's campaign could study--a record which reflected how people versed in history approach national issues and voting. Peter, you took the trouble to respond and I thank you for your response.

Maarja Krusten - 10/2/2004

I certainly do apologize to all of you for what appear to be excessive postings of my part. I will keep Peter's comment in mind from now on. As to the term "undecided," it does not necessarily mean indecisive. It can reflect a desire for better choices. The two candidates show a mixture of strengths and weaknesses which I am trying to unravel. I do not readily trust either. I won't spell the reasons out, you guys don't need more long postings from me, that's for sure! I do envy those of you who have clearly settled on one or the other as being the best leader for our nation. Thanks for your patience as I've tried to work my own way through to such a level of clarity, and have challenged you to explain why you have committed so readily to one or another! I would have liked to have triggered more debate among you, it might have helped me understand how you all are making the best of what seem to be pretty bad choices. Ah well.

Maarja Krusten - 10/2/2004

USA TODAY noted, "For Bush, life is about loyalty, and anyone who discloses a secret is disloyal. It's that simple, "us against them," those close to him say." The country was pretty evenly split in the 2000 election and remains split this year. If "life is about loyalty," and issues as viewed as "us against them," does the administration respect dissent and the views of the people who voted against Bush in 2000? How are their interests and concerns, which clearly have some validity, factored in to governance? A President can't just view himself as being President of half the nation, he needs to consider the interests of all the people in his care.

Maarja Krusten - 10/2/2004

In your experiences, have the strongest bosses and leaders you've known had the characteristics described in the USA TODAY and TIME extracts? In your experiences as an employee, are these characteristics signs of strength and confidence or of weakness and flawed management?

Maarja Krusten - 10/2/2004

Much has been made of Bush's seeming irritation at Kerry during the debates. I noted it myself in another thread at http://hnn.us/readcomment.php?id=43385#43385 and asked what it might mean. Consider also that throughout the campaign, journalists and columnists have raised questions about the requirement that members of the public sign loyalty oaths, about the way Bush and Cheney rarely hold news conferences, etc. Much more so than previous administration officials, they seem most comfortable in controlled environments, in front of friendly audiences.

As an Independent, undecided voter, I am giving all these indicators a lot of thought. We all have opinions on what type of boss we would like to work for and what managerial styles lead to successful organizations. One of Dick Cheney's friends once described him as having a "Father knows best" approach. My question for you HNN readers is, if that is true, where does accountability fit in this picture, especially now that we are in Iraq?

For your consideration, here are extracts from two articles from 2002. Both predate the Iraq war. Since these articles appeared, we've seen the Bush administration resist the formation of commissions and the production of witnesses. Sometimes, the President has had to change his position, as with the formation of the Department of Homeland Security (Cabinet members testify, Presidential advisers mostly do not). But the default mode seems to be, we know what we're doing, don't press us to explain why.

For those who are planning to vote for Bush, please read these extracts and share any thoughts you have as to how accountability fits in to this picture. Of course, anyone else can speak up too!

(1) USA TODAY, "For Bush, secrecy is a matter of loyalty," March 14, 2002


Using a disciplined management style and a bit of old-fashioned fear, Bush and his lieutenants are not just withholding classified secrets from Congress. They're also exercising tight control over what administration officials can say and even which invitations to black-tie dinners staffers can accept.

Retribution is swift for those who violate White House rules or betray secrets. Republican insiders estimate that at least four people have lost administration jobs because they did not live up to the White House code of conduct: Never disagree with Bush in public, and don't talk about what you know without approval.

It's not uncommon for chief executives to worry about unauthorized leaks of national security information, internal policy disputes becoming public, or premature disclosures of presidential decisions. Moreover, Bush has cited the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as reason for even greater secrecy -- about Cheney's whereabouts or investigations of terrorist threats.

But Bush's desire to keep information close to the vest predates Sept. 11. It is ingrained in his character, has shaped his presidency, was at the core of his management style during his six years as Texas governor and made him the watchdog for leaks in his father's administration.

For Bush, life is about loyalty, and anyone who discloses a secret is disloyal. It's that simple, "us against them," those close to him say. Of course, they won't say that on the record. Several prominent Republicans were willing to talk about Bush's style of managing only if assured that their names would not be used.

The fear of retribution is well placed. Mike Parker, a former Republican congressman from Mississippi, lost his job as head of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last week. His offense? Being too candid before the Senate Budget Committee, administration officials say."


(2) 7 Clues to Understanding Dick Cheney," TIME, December 30, 2002:

"Cheney's critics argue that his defense of Executive privilege is a smoke screen that masks a contempt for Congress, the media and, by extension, the public. Even some of his friends think he takes it too far. Cheney, says one, 'has a kind of Father Knows Best attitude about government: We're in control,and we know what we're doing even if you don't.' But Cheney is unapologetic in his view. In an appearance last February on the Tonight Show, not the usual forum for constitutional issues, he complained to Jay Leno about 'a continual encroachment by Congress in the ExecutiveBranch' and vowed, 'The President and I are bound and determined not to allow that to happen on our watch.'"

[end extract]

Have you had bosses who operated this way and in whom you felt comfortable placing your trust? If so, how and why? And how did checks and balances and employee protctions work out in such organizations? As I've mentioned elsewhere, I am a student of Presidential leadership and management styles, in addition to having my own private views on what makes a good boss.