Nine Days in October
T he first of the debates was just over the horizon, and Bill Clinton was feeling lousy. His mood was cranky. His voice was going again, disappearing into a cracked whisper. His back ached so badly that his aides got him a massage, specifying, discreetly, that it be done by a man. His nerves were as taut as piano strings, in spite of the fifteen-point lead he was carrying into combat. Perot was back competing with him for the change vote, and George Bush was out there zapping him as the failed governor of a Lilliputian state and maybe a Soviet stooge besides. He would have to parry the blows and much, much more. He would be on the same stage as Bush for the first time, selling himself as well as his message of change; he had to make people see him alongside the real article and imagine him as president.
The pressure on him, as on his rivals, was at once enormous and unfair. To Bush's man Bob Teeter, it was as though the entire election were being put into a compactor and compressed into a nine-day series of debates, three for the presidential candidates and one for their running mates. Only Ross Perot was happy with the prospect; for the others, the debates were a high-risk form of low political theater, one in which the reviewers graded the players for their skills at stagecraft rather than the merits of their policies or the force of their arguments. The overriding imperatives were to load up with one-liners, apply the pancake freely before you went on -- the darkness of Richard Nixon's jowl undid him in 1960 -- and try above all else to avoid saying anything stupid.
Yet there was much to be gained in doing well, and each of the three rivals had his own objective. For Clinton, it was to make Bush look like an insensitive bumbler in his management of the economy and to present himself as the agent of change. For the president, as Teeter framed it, the goal was to "change this from a referendum on the times to a referendum on two people" -- the only kind of referendum Bush might conceivably win. And for Perot? Merely to have been invited was a victory of sorts, a form of recognition that he was real; he