On the campaign trail one inevitably encounters vast quantities of information and happenstance. Most of it is discarded as useless. But sometimes a set of events will trigger recall of some seemingly unimportant moment from the past - and what was a random shard of trivia becomes a key piece of the jigsaw.
In a recent exchange with journalists, George W. claimed that he watched little TV. (He also revealed a penchant for catching and eating doves - a claim which may have unintended resonance for some veterans of Vietnam war protests.) The reference to his TV-viewing habits triggered recall of a seemingly trivial incident at Philadelphia airport the day after the GOP convention. In response to a run-of-the-mill "How are you doing?" question from an English-accented TV reporter - Bush suddenly confronted the journalist and acidly inquired whether he was the Englishman who'd called him "Hollow-Bush" on TV earlier that week. The reporter wasn't, was suitably baffled - and the moment passed. Some serious Nexus research later revealed that another Brit HAD been on TV that week. He hadn't dubbed W. with the "Hollow-Bush" name - but he had been on camera at the precise moment when a member of the public telephoned in and used that nomenclature that so irritated Bush.
And what high-profile channel was it that carried this insignificant exchange? C-Span. And at an ungodly early hour of the morning. None of Bush's staff knew anything about this utterly minor exchange. But W did. He had obviously been niggled by it. Clearly C-Span is one of the presets on the Governor's remote control.
And THAT more than anything else may explain his incredible reluctance to partake in traditional debates seen in primetime on all the major networks.
You see, boring old C-Span has a secret. Its daytimes may be filled with endlessly dreary Congressional committee meetings - but at night it takes viewers on a Star Trek-like trip into the past. Just as Nickelodeon becomes Nick-At-Nite for baby-boomers craving sitcoms from the 50's and 60's - so C-Span has been unspooling hours of archival Presidential debates from the past 40 years. Call it Span-At-Nite.
And what viewers (including undoubtedly W.) see is compulsive viewing. We see how pivotal those massively-seen national debates have been. And we see the unmistakable moments when the losing Presidential candidate loses it in front of the nation...
In 1988, Michael Dukakis expressionless after Bernard Shaw asks him how he would feel about the death penalty if wife Kitty was raped and murdered. Dukakis turns it into a policy-wonk moment on crime statistics. (George Bush Snr. is more passionate in his defense of Dan Quayle two minutes later.)
In 1976, a stumbling Gerald Ford asserting the lack of Russian influence in Eastern Europe.... In 1984 a gray Fritz Mondale - looking like a refugee from a convention of CPAs... In 1980, Jimmy Carter tired and wan.... In 1996, Bob Dole befuddled and spent (perhaps Viagra-ed out...)
And - most tellingly of all - the 1992 debates.
Against an ebullient Bill Clinton - Master Of His Political Domain - George W. Bush's father (who had been President for four years at that point) looks like a neophyte. Arms and syntax flailing, he seems more like Dana Carvey's devastating caricature of him than the real man.
At that moment - George Bush Snr. had had nearly 30 years experience of public life including 8 years as Vice-President and 4 years as President. And STILL he looked like a doofus next to an energized political jock.
George W. has had a scant 5 1/2 years in public life. If he has been watching C-Span lately as assiduously as he clearly was a few weeks ago - he has probably seen the Ghost Of Debates That Might Come.
Getting into the ring with a reinvigorated Al Gore for three nationally-viewed prime-time bouts is like asking the man to commit suicide. And George W. is certainly not that stupid.
Given his newly-disclosed fondness for the lower numbers on the TV dial - I am confidently expecting Bush to challenge Gore to primetime debates on The Sci-Fi Channel, The Weather Channel and The Food Network. I especially look forward to the latter. Perhaps he will reveal his secrets for preparing doves to be consumed. I spent the late 60's failing miserably in that department....