Two defining moments occurred during the second presidential debate. The first came when moderator Jim Lehrer asked George W. Bush how the people of the world should view the United States. “If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us,” Bush answered. “If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us.” The answer was striking because it not only made sense as foreign policy, but it also reminded the public of how Bush would have them see the difference between himself and Al Gore.
The second key moment involved a question about racial profiling and civil rights, which is Democratic turf. Bush neatly segued onto his own turf: “Let me tell you where the biggest discrimination comes: in public education when we just move children through schools. My friend Phyllis Hunter’s here. She had one of the greatest lines of all lines. She said, ‘Reading is the new civil right.’” Gore would eventually score points against Bush on his Texas record involving hate crimes and children’s health, but Bush had already controlled the damage.
Just a few hours after the debate, hostilities broke out in the Middle East. A third debate lay ahead. Either of those events, or something else wholly unpredictable, could have seismic effect on the presidential race. Politics are unpredictable and ephemeral. But for one night, at least, Bush had altered the political landscape. The adroitness of his responses, and the fact that they appeared to be totally uncalculated, was an indication that he may finally be on the way to overcoming one of his biggest weaknesses—a longstanding inability to master the art of political communication.
To understand just how far Bush has come, go back to the Sunday evening before Thanksgiving last year, when Bush made a decision, little noticed at the time, that would become more revealing as the months passed. He attended a memorial service for the victims of the Texas A&M bonfire, which had collapsed in the early hours of the morning, but he opted not to speak, giving as his reason that he did not want to politicize such a solemn and tragic event. It was a