The President Gets Defensive

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Friday, October 1, 2004; 12:48 PM

For the first time in a long time, President Bush last night didn't have the spotlight all to himself. For the first time in a long time, he wasn't surrounded by his fans.

Instead, he was confronted by someone who disagreed with him, in front of a silent audience. And you could tell he didn't like it one bit.

In fact, at times he looked downright irritated.

The pundits, the polls and the analysts overnight almost without exception give Democrat John Kerry the edge in last night's debate -- certainly on style.

On substance, of course, the ultimate winner will be the one whose vision of the Iraq war is embraced by the public.

And I hereby declare another winner: Fact-checking journalists. Major media outlets did an outstanding job of truth-squadding statements made by both candidates last night.

I challenged bloggers in yesterday's column to help fact-check the debate, and from what I can see this morning, blogger fact-checking looked shallow and strident by comparison to the press corps' -- although there were some good catches. (If you see posts that prove me wrong, e-mail me at We can address this again on Monday.)

So if you thought for a minute that trained, professional journalists had lost their value in the Internet age, today's coverage proves that when it comes to helping the public assess the veracity of politicians, there is simply no substitute.

Today's Coverage Begins

Dana Milbank and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "President Bush and John F. Kerry clashed over the Iraq war Thursday night in an intense and substantive first debate, in which the Democratic nominee charged that the war was a diversion from the more important war against al Qaeda and the president defended the conflict as crucial to the nation's security. . . .

"The Massachusetts senator accused the president of 'misleading' the nation as he went to war, while Bush said nine times that Kerry's 'mixed messages' and 'mixed signals' mean he does not have the steadiness to be an effective commander in chief. . . .

"There were no glaring mistakes by either candidate during the 90-minute debate at the University of Miami, although Bush often appeared agitated, scowling at times as Kerry leveled his charges. While both delivered their messages forcefully, Kerry sharply questioned the president's credibility and highlighted his own ability to serve as commander in chief."

Anne E. Kornblut and Glen Johnson write in the Boston Globe: "Kerry, who voted to authorize the war in Iraq but has been critical of it in the two years since, assailed Bush most sharply over his attempts to connect the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with the operation in Baghdad. 'Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaeda attacked us,' Kerry said.

"Bush, appearing exasperated as his rival spoke, leaned into the podium and replied: 'Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us. I know that.' But Bush maintained his core argument about the war in Iraq -- that it is part of a global struggle against terrorism -- and said his opponent could never successfully bring peace to the war-torn region after being so critical of the US effort there."

Here are links some other lead stories. From the New York Times: "Bush Sees a Safer America, While Kerry Sees a 'Colossal Error'." From the Los Angeles Times: "Bush, Kerry Trade Barbs on Iraq War." From USA Today: "Sharp exchanges on Iraq shaped debate." From the Chicago Tribune: "Bush, Kerry clash on Iraq." From the Washington Times: "Bush rips Iraq flip-flops."

The Analyses

Dan Balz writes in a Washington Post news analysis: "This was a debate shorn of gimmicks, gaffes, canned one-liners, gotcha moments or even many light-hearted asides. It was as serious as the times in which this campaign is being waged. . . .

"Bush appeared defensive at the start of the 90-minute debate, and at times the camera caught him scowling or frowning as Kerry relentlessly attacked his record on Iraq. But as the debate continued, he made a passionate defense of the values that are at the foundation of his foreign policy: taking the fight to terrorists and spreading freedom across the planet."

Todd Purdum writes in a New York Times news analysis: "By the time the debate ended, Mr. Kerry appeared to have accomplished his primary goal for the evening: establishing himself as a plausible commander in chief.

"Mr. Bush, who seemed defensive and less sure of himself at the outset, quickly gained his footing, counterpunching effectively by repeatedly charging that Mr. Kerry was inconsistent and lacked the resolve to defend the nation against terrorism."

Ron Brownstein writes in a Los Angeles Times news analysis that "initial reactions suggest the debate may help Kerry regain some of the ground as a potential commander in chief and strong leader that he has lost since his party's convention in July amid withering Republican attack. But the full political effect probably won't be apparent for several days as the arguments between the contenders reverberate through their campaign appearances."

Peter S. Canellos writes in a Boston Globe news analysis: "After two months spent reacting to attacks on his own record, John Kerry last night succeeded in turning the roving spotlight of the 2004 presidential campaign onto President Bush's Iraq policies, blaming Bush for allowing the United States to bear '90 percent of the casualties and 90 percent of the costs.' "

Ron Hutcheson writes in a Knight Ridder news analysis: "John Kerry came to last night's debate caricatured as an indecisive windbag, but he went after President Bush with a flurry of oral punches that put Bush on the defensive. . . .

"Bush pushed backed, but a president known for his resolute determination came across at times as hesitant and testy. He frowned, pursed his lips and bit the inside of his cheek as Kerry attacked the president's performance in office again and again."

Ron Fournier writes for the Associated Press: "Sen. John Kerry summed up President Bush's plan for Iraq in four words -- 'More of the same' -- and thus neatly laid out the choice facing voters Nov. 2: Stick with the incumbent or take a leap of faith with a newcomer."

The Style

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush has thrown Sen. John F. Kerry's words back on him during nearly every speech of the campaign, but he rocked back in irritation during the first presidential debate Thursday night when the Massachusetts senator did the same thing to him.

"Bush's aides knew that his temper was a potential vulnerability, and his debate coaching sessions included practice in not getting rattled. But the camera shutters started snapping as the president shot a look into the University of Miami Convocation Center when Kerry seized on Bush's refrain that 'the enemy hit us' and to point out that was not Saddam Hussein."

James Bennet writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush was all topic sentence in the debate tonight -- and it was often the same sentence. Mr. Kerry sent 'mixed signals' to allies and enemies. 'That's not how a commander in chief acts,' he said. He grimaced in irritation or shook his head at some of his opponent's answers.

"Mr. Kerry was all paragraph and dependent clause, stacked thoughts and elaborate detail."

Grimace Watch

Here's the full video of the debate.

But here are some of Bush's grimaces captured by still photographers.

There's the scowl, the annoyed head-turn, the pursed lips and the pugilist stare.

Fact-Checking: The News Media

The Washington Post ran a fact-checking story by Glenn Kessler and Walter Pincus, and expanded and converted it into a feature called Debate Referee that features the full text of the debate, annotated with in-line fact-checks and video.

In their story, Kessler and Pincus write: "Bush, for instance, hailed the coming presidential election in Afghanistan, saying that the fact that 10 million people had registered to vote was a 'phenomenal statistic.' But Human Rights Watch this week said that figure was inaccurate because of the multiple registrations of many voters. In a lengthy report, the respected organization also documented how human rights abuses are fueling a pervasive atmosphere of repression and fear in many parts of the country, with voters in those areas having little faith in the secrecy of the balloting and often facing threats and bribes from militia factions."

Here's that report from Human Rights Watch.

"Kerry repeatedly stated that U.S. forces allowed Osama bin Laden to escape during the battle at Tora Bora in 2001 because the administration, he said, 'outsourced' the task to Afghan militia leaders. This probably overstates the case -- it is unclear whether bin Laden was at Tora Bora -- but it is true that the Pentagon relied on Afghan proxy forces in an effort to minimize the potential loss of U.S. military lives. Kerry said bin Laden was in Afghanistan, but the intelligence community has always said he was somewhere along the Afghan-Pakistani border. . . .

"Bush said direct talks with North Korea would drive away China, a key player in the negotiations.

"But each of the other four countries in the talks has held direct talks with North Korea during the six-party process -- and China has repeatedly asked the Bush administration to talk directly with North Korea."

There's much more in Debate Referee, including these points:

War spending: Kerry's $200 billion figure for spending on the war includes $80 billion in projected spending; only $120 billion has been spent so far.

Poland's role: Bush was wrong when he corrected Kerry by saying that the senator forgot to mention that Poland supplied forces when the invasion began.

Disarming Iraq: Bush said "Saddam Hussein had no intention of disarming," but Iraq asserted it had no WMD and none has been found.

Bunker-busters: Kerry was wrong when he said "hundreds of millions of dollars to research bunker-busting nuclear weapons." Only $35 million is budgeted.

Sanctions: Kerry said Hussein would have continued to weaken under the pressure of sanctions -- but there is some doubt the sanctions would have remained in place.

Loose nukes: Kerry said Bush cut spending on nuclear proliferation; Bush said it's up 35 percent. In fact, Bush's first budget proposed a 13 percent cut; much of the increases since then have been added by Congress.

A.Q. Khan: Bush said the A.Q. Khan network has been brought to justice. But not a single person involved in Khan's network has been prosecuted anywhere.

Death toll: Kerry was correct when he said the number of U.S. soldiers that were killed has recently increased month by month. But he left out that the highest number killed in any month was in April.

The $87 billion: Bush said Kerry "voted against the $87 billion supplemental to provide equipment for our troops, and then said he actually did vote for it before he voted against it" -- an accurate description of the Senate process. Kerry supported a different version of the bill, which was opposed by the administration.

U.N. role: While Bush did seek U.N. approval to confront Saddam Hussein, he very quickly gave up on the inspection process and assumed a war footing several months before the March 2003 invasion, according to administration officials.

Pottery Barn: Kerry got the "Pottery Barn" rule wrong, and it's not the Pottery Barn's rule, and Secretary of State Colin Powell actually never used the line with Bush.

USA Today's fact-checking story looks at various assertions, among them:

"Al-Qaeda's status: Bush said that '75% of known al-Qaeda leaders have been brought to justice,' which seems to suggest that the terrorist group is mostly eradicated. But U.S. and international intelligence agencies say that most killed or captured leaders have since been replaced. The group's two top leaders, bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, remain at large."

Calvin Woodward writes for the Associated Press: "Sometimes, one candidate had a chance to take on the wayward claim of the other, as when Bush suggested he went to war in Iraq because 'the enemy attacked us' and Kerry pointed out Saddam Hussein did no such thing. . . .

"Often, wrongful assertions or oversimplifications went unanswered, as when Kerry attacked Bush for spending too little on protecting the country from terrorism and declared, 'That's why they had to close down the subway in New York when the Republican convention was there.' The subway didn't close; some exits near the convention did. . . .

"A slip of the tongue was behind another Kerry statement. He said of Iraq, 'we got weapons of mass destruction crossing the border every single day, and they're blowing people up.' He meant terrorists are doing that."

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush, for example, eager to blunt Kerry's charges that he charged unilaterally into the Iraq war, contended that his administration had 'used diplomacy every chance we get.' In fact, though Bush sought United Nations approval for the war in early 2003, it had become clear that the administration's patience for diplomacy was nearly exhausted. The administration rebuffed proposals from other countries that would have extended international weapons inspections and delayed the March 2003 invasion.

"Kerry, on the other hand, seeking to portray the war as reckless, asserted flatly that Bush had 'no plan' for the aftermath. In fact, the administration had elaborate sets of plans for handling the various crises that officials anticipated, such as oil-well fires and huge refugee flows. The problem they later confronted was that the assumptions behind the plans proved wildly wrong."

The Boston Globe has a fact-check chart, challenging Bush's assertion that Iraq had the capability of making WMD, and Kerry's assertion that North Korea has four to seven nuclear bombs.

Renee Schoof and John Walcott write in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Bush's main line of attack all evening was his charge that Kerry keeps changing positions on Iraq. In fact, while Kerry admitted last night that he hasn't always expressed himself clearly, he has never backed away from his vote authorizing the war and he has always said that Bush should have sought more international help."

Mark Matthews and Laura Sullivan write about disarming Iraq, cutting the COPS program, and more.

Fact-Checking: The Bloggers

The Daily Kos blog asked readers to fact-check. One reader helpfully linked to's tally of non-U.S. forces in Iraq.

Blogger Julian Sanchez pointed out that Poland isn't the happiest of coalition partners. He quotes President Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland: "They deceived us about the weapons of mass destruction, that's true. We were taken for a ride."

Blogger Brad DeLong highlights the 18 things he thinks Bush shouldn't have said.

Blogger Daniel Kreiss digs into Bush's assertion that $14 billion in aid has been pledged by other countries and provides a link to the Iraq Procurement Web site.

Blogger Matthew Hoy casts doubts on Kerry's statements about people buying state-of-the-art body gear on the Internet.

And here are some other bloggers I found who did some fact-checking:, Eschaton, American Prospect, Daniel Drezner, Obsidian Wings, Media Curmudgeon, Ken Sain and Brian Fox.

Fact-Checking: The Campaigns

And don't forget how hard the campaigns are working to spin the fact-checking themselves.

Here are the official Bush and Kerry efforts.

Some Odd Lines

Bush: "Of course we're after Saddam Hussein -- I mean bin Laden."

Bush on the toll of war: "I see on the TV screens how hard it is."

Bush on the twins: "I'm trying to put a leash on them."

The latter elicited this comment from blogger Andrew Sullivan: "No president who has presided over Abu Ghraib should ever say he wants to put anyone on a leash."

The Insta-Polls

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll had Kerry as the winner, 53-37.

ABC's poll had it for Kerry 45-36. "It was a clean win for Kerry: Independents by a 20-point margin said he prevailed."

A CBS poll had Kerry winning 43-28.

The Focus Groups

Alan Elsner writes for Reuters: "A group of citizens in the swing state of New Hampshire, including Democrats, Republicans and one undecided voter, gave a slight edge to Democrat John Kerry in Thursday's first presidential debate."

Kathy Kiely of USA Today convened a focus group in Pennsylvania: "A panel of 15 undecided voters convened to watch the debate. Although the panel leaned Republican in party registration, when it came to deciding who won the first of three presidential debates, the members overwhelmingly gave the nod to Kerry."

Post Debate Spin

Here's the post-debate analysis from CNN and MSNBC, and video from CBS.

Here's Karen Hughes and Joe Lockhart on Fox News.

Here's Howard Kurtz on this morning: "The buzz in the pressroom was that Kerry turned in the stronger performance and may have revived his campaign, but reporters were surprised by the 10- and 15-point margins by which the networks' insta-polls gave the contest to Kerry. Keep in mind, though, that these early snapshots may not mean much, as Gore found out four years ago.

"I've scoured the Major Media coverage and haven't found anyone who says Bush won last night. Tim Russert's take on 'Today' is typical: 'The president was more tentative and more on the defensive than we've seen him in previous debates. John Kerry was the John Kerry that Democrats hoped they were nominating back in Iowa, someone who could give a forceful presentation.' "

The Apres-Debate

After the debate, Bush stopped off to talk to 3,500 cheering supporters at a nearby debate-watching party.

From the transcript: "I had a good time up there talking about what I believe.

"(Applause.) No, it's not hard to debate if you know what's in your heart. (Applause.) Know where you want to lead this country. . . .

"No, people know where I stand. People know what I believe. I've got a plan to fight these terrorists, to keep this country secure. I've got a plan to spread freedom, not only in the greater Middle East, but in our own hemisphere, in places like Cuba. (Applause.) I've got a plan to make this world more peaceful. . . .

"You know, I'm kind of getting older, so I need to get my sleep."

Morning Spin Watch

Just a taste!

Here are White House communications director Dan Bartlett and Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards on CBS's Early Show.

The TV Reviews

Tom Shales writes in The Washington Post: "John Kerry came off as more presidential than the president last night as the two candidates met for their first face-to-face debate, televised live on all the networks from the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. President Bush did not appear to have a firm grasp on the major issues being discussed, opting instead for the repetition of sloganlike remarks and repeated attacks on his Democratic challenger."

Alessandra Stanley writes in the New York Times: "The cameras demonstrated that Mr. Bush cannot hear criticism without frowning, blinking and squirming (he even sighed once). They showed that Mr. Kerry can control his anger and stay cool but that he cannot suppress his inner overeager A student, flashing a bleach-white smile and nodding hungrily at each question."

Paul Brownfield writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Who's the daddy, at a time when the electorate is having nightmares about unseen, vaguely understood enemies?. . . .

"Bush came across as suddenly less qualified to be Daddy than he has been."

© 2004