By Ciro Scotti
Watching George W. Bush on the hot seat is painful. When he gets that fawn-in-the-deerjacker's-light look, you feel for the guy.
Publicly at least, he's not a mean-spirited man. Near the end of Thursday's debate when he was asked if he had any reservations about John Kerry's character, he was gracious, momentarily generous, and generated the evening's only human moment. And not just because his opponent is a fellow Skull & Bones man (see BW Online, 10/01/04, "Republicrat vs. Democan"). That's usually the way Bush comes across -- a likable Joe, sincere in his beliefs, and comfortable in his own skin.
Besides that, he's the President and has led the nation at a time of enormous peril and uncertainty (some of it, arguably, of his own making). Love him or detest him, he sits at the desk where the buck makes its last stop.
But in Coral Gables, Fla., last night, Bush looked -- at least for the first half of the debate -- like Elmer Befuddled, a commander-in-chief not in command.
Perhaps what was so unnerving was that Bush found himself in a foreign-policy debate with a seasoned politician who was espousing the same sort of measured, internationalist approach to a dangerous world that was the hallmark of his father's Presidency. Debating the security and future of the nation on live national television isn't easy -- but debating your Dad is downright scary.
FACING THE MUSIC.
Of course, the differences between Kerry and George H.W. Bush are legion. But there's that War Hero Thing. That Air-of-the-Patrician Thing. That Tall-and-Gangly Thing. That Awkwardness-with-Other-People Thing. And Kerry in his embarrassing windsurfing togs was reminiscent of Poppy Bush in his geeky skydiving suit.
Kerry even brought up Bush the elder when he said the President's father did not continue into Iraq after driving Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War because he knew "there was no exit strategy" and feared that American soldiers would face a hostile populace (see BW Online, 10/1/04, "Kerry Lands the First Punch").
When Kerry, methodically making his case like the prosecutor he once was, said, "This President has made a colossal error of judgment" by invading Iraq, Bush looked like a 1960s teenager called on the carpet for cracking up the family Oldsmobile. At that moment, it was hard not to get the impression that young George wanted to be anyplace but where he found himself.
The poignancy of a man ill-prepared for and overwhelmed by his job was never more apparent than when Bush said, "I never wanted to commit troops. When we were debating in 2000, I never dreamed I'd have to do that."
The message that Kerry hammered home was that, in fact, Bush did not have to "do that," did not have to send our soldiers -- at least not to Iraq.
But Bush, the onetime black sheep of his family, wanted to wipe away the "wimp factor" stain that his old man had left on the Bush clan. And so he rebelled against the family mantra of prudence in all things. Last night, he looked for all the world like a sputtering screwup -- again.
Scotti is a senior editor for BusinessWeek in New York and offers his views in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BusinessWeek Online