The following summary is printed as a public service for the thousands of voters who missed the first televised presidential debate because their electricity had been knocked out by one of the hurricanes.
President Bush entered from the audience’s right side of the stage. Sen. Kerry entered from the left side. They shook hands and exchanged a few private words, possibly about the humidity.
President Bush wore a blue necktie and an American flag lapel pin. Sen. Kerry wore a red necktie and an American flag lapel pin. The moderator, Jim Lehrer, wore a cranberry-colored tie but no lapel pin.
Sen. Kerry began by expressing sympathy for the people of Florida, a reference to the nasty hurricane season. He went on to say that he had a “better plan” for homeland security and that he would do a “better job” in Iraq.
He also said that he’d reach out to build alliances in the Muslim world, “which the president has almost not done.”
Mr. Lehrer did not ask Sen. Kerry what that almost meant.
President Bush also began by acknowledging the suffering of storm-weary Floridians. He went on to defend the invasion of Iraq and the war on terror, which he described as “hard work.”
He also said that the terrorists don’t want Iraq to be free – “that’s why they’re fighting so vociferously.”
Again, Mr. Lehrer did not ask for a translation.
Sen. Kerry said it was a “colossal error of judgment” for President Bush to go after Saddam Hussein in Iraq while Osama bin Laden was still running loose in Afghanistan.
He also noted that opium production today is booming in that region, although he did not present a solution to the world’s appetite for heroin.
President Bush pointed out that Sen. Kerry voted with Congress to authorize the use of force in Iraq, and that Sen. Kerry has previously stated that Saddam Hussein was indeed a bad apple.
The president also elaborated on his efforts at international diplomacy: “I sit down with the world leaders frequently and talk to them on the phone frequently.”
Mr. Lehrer did not ask whether birthday cards are also exchanged.
Sen. Kerry stated that President Bush invaded Iraq without a clear plan for what to do afterward. He cited the “Pottery Barn rule,” which is “you break it, you fix it” or “you break it, you own it” or “you own it, you fix it.”
In any case, Mr. Lehrer did not ask how this doctrine substantially differs from the “Home Depot rule.”
Later, President Bush reiterated his belief that the United States will eventually win in Iraq. “It’s - and it’s hard work. I understand how hard it is. I get the casualty reports every day. I see on the TV screens how hard it is.”
There was no audible reaction to this, or any other awkward remark made by the candidates. Before the debates, audience members had been warned to remain completely silent, or they’d all be flown to Cleveland next week and forced to sit through the vice presidential debate.
The lightest moment of the evening came when President Bush was asked about Sen. Kerry’s character. The president called it a loaded question but then went on to say that he admired the senator’s service to our country and “the fact that he is a great dad.”
Sen. Kerry responded appreciatively and offered kind words about Mrs. Bush and the couple’s frisky twin daughters. The president joked that he was “trying to put a leash on them,” but the senator gently advised against it.
This was followed by a lengthy discussion of nuclear proliferation, with the candidates disagreeing sharply over how to deal with the atomic weapons programs in North Korea and Iran.
Despite the candidates’ differences, they did concur on a few points – that it’s essential to prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling into the hands of terrorists; that we shouldn’t pull out of Iraq right now; that the slaughter in Darfur is genocide, but that we shouldn’t send troops just yet; and that campaigning for president is tough on your family.
Both men were in full agreement that God should continue to bless America.
Having no further questions, Mr. Lehrer ended the debate. Finally the audience was allowed to applaud.
Again the candidates shook hands and exchanged a few private words, possibly about chipping in to buy Mr. Lehrer a lapel pin.