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“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
— Upton Sinclair
“It is possible to wake a man even from soundest sleep. But no amount of effort can wake one who is pretending to sleep.”
— Old Tamil saying
Together, these quotes just about sum up the second presidential debate and, in a larger sense, the tragedy of our politics.
When a voter asked him to identify three mistakes he had made, Bush hemmed and hawed before producing a wholly unsatisfactory reply. He had had ample time to prepare for this question: several months ago at his press conference in the White House, a reporter asked him the same question (to be fair, the reporter asked for just one mistake, not three — but the president was unable to come up with any). Forget Iraq. He could easily have used the opportunity to say, “Well, I take responsibility for everything that goes on in my watch. Obviously, 9-11 was a great failure, and the fact that none of us were aware of the magnitude of the threat does not make it any less of a burden for me…I have spent the rest of my term correcting that error.” That would not only have put Kerry’s Iraq tap dance squarely centerstage, it would have also helped clear an atmosphere reeking of inanity.
Watching Bush’s challenger, one is reminded of what happens to many of us when balancing our checkbook. Unable to make the figures match, we eventually resign ourselves to the existing discrepancy, resolving to balance the numbers from here on out. No one believes his claptrap about ‘giving the president the authority’ and then being blindsided by him using it. But such is the power of Bush’s vapid struttings that they are willing put away Kerry’s fantastic explanation (in a lockbox?) and rejoice that the old veteran has at last begun to speak out on Iraq.
There is, of course, the frightening prospect that the president does think he is right. To echo what Al Sharpton said in one of the primary debates, “Let us hope he was lying, because the alternative is even scarier.”
Why, for example, six months after he made the “I voted for the bill before I voted against it” statement, is Kerry still unable to explain something so completely understandable and logical? A friend of mine gave a crisp explanation in 30 seconds. “I wanted to support the 87 billion dollar appropriation, but I wanted it to come out of the tax breaks we were giving to the rich, not from outside the budget. In the first resolution, such a proposal was included — I supported it. In the second case, they took out this provision, and so I voted against it”.
But no! Kerry’s explanation: “I was wrong in the way I spoke about the war. The president was wrong in the way he took us to war. Which is worse?” God alone knows what focus group hatched this gem. It occurred to me that a simple test could be applied by asking Kerry, “Would you vote for a similar resolution today authorizing the use of force against Iran? North Korea?” I suspect Bush too would be stymied by the same question.
Great leadership calls for talking truth to the people. When that happens, elections can become uplifting and didactic. Paul Craig Roberts wrote an eloquent piece in Counterpunch  why Kerry needs to speak the truth in the third debate (sadly, he expressed no such expectation of Bush). In an article some months ago, I recounted Gandhi’s sense of responsibility  demonstrated in taking full blame for something for which he bore no direct part.
In our time, the lies, misstatements, obfuscations, half-truths, evasions, diversions and the rest are now piled so high as to rival the fallen twin towers themselves. The truth lies buried beneath this wreckage. In the end, all we know is that there are two figures standing — a president who perhaps believes the nonsense he speaks, and speaks it fluently at any rate; and an opponent who is well-informed but has trouble simply stating the simple truth.
It is easy enough to blame Bush and blast Kerry, but is it not just as important to ask why the candidates feel they have to craft their image with such elaborate care, why there cannot be about them even the whiff of a mistake? And if the candidates really think so, does not the neurosis at the top reflect a more widespread malady? It would seem that the people would rather their leaders entertained them, rather than educated them on the realities. Far better to treat the election as gladiator sport and sneer at ‘politics’. Do we want to be told that a bomb, paid for with our tax dollars, crippled an Iraqi child who had nothing to do with Saddam Husain, Al Sadr, Al Qaeda, Zarqawi, or the Baathists? (In a different life, would John Edwards have not, even at this moment, been suing the perpetrators?) Or that the country has a debt that threatens its very sovereignty?
Why bother? Far more convenient to cheer brave talk of smarter wars, coalitions of the willing or billing (though perhaps not killing or drilling), flip-flops, and the like. That way, we are safely past the potential trauma of a national soul searching. Perhaps it was ever so. As Kipling wrote a long time ago, “If you can talk with crowds, and keep your virtue…”
All the same, voting rights in a superpower carry a terrible responsibility, and this is no ordinary election. In our own way, we are handing the next administration — and Congress — the power to determine whether innocent people in remote region of the world live or die . To say we gave them this power to use wisely is to emulate John Kerry’s credulity in the matter of the Iraq War resolution.
Paul Craig Roberts is right. Kerry needs to find his voice. But far more importantly, America needs to find hers.
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. His writings can be found on http://www.indogram.com/gramsabha/articles. His blog is at http://njn-blogogram.blogspot.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 “To Escape from Blunder, First Admit Reality“, Paul Craig Roberts, Counterpunch, Oct 11, 2004
 “Gandhi’s vision of Responsibility: The Great Trial of 1922“, NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN, CounterPunch March 20, 2004
 “Civilians and Combatants“, NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN, Swarajya, November 11, 2001