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Silent But Deadly

John Kerry's much-lauded debate performance is going to continue to dog him--even if the media doesn't know it.

12:00 AM, Oct 7, 2004 • By HUGH HEWITT
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IF A GAFFE falls in a forest, and nobody hears it, is it still a gaffe?

John Kerry's widely praised debate performance a week ago was in fact blunder-filled. Already we have seen the Bush-Cheney team seize on Kerry's call for global testing of American foreign policy, and there were other disastrous peeks at Kerrythink embedded in his silky delivery, about which more will follow.

Kerry came out against modernizing America's nuclear arsenal, for selling nuclear fuel to Iran, for appeasement of North Korea, and with an analogy comparing the Iraq war to invading Mexico after Pearl Harbor. The senator from Massachusetts also answered a Jim Lehrer question as to whether the war in Iraq was a mistake with a resounding "No!" only to later brand the war in Iraq a colossal error. And he overplayed his Tora Bora hand by insisting that the terrorists who "walked away" from Tora Bora were now at work in 60 countries around the globe, displaying an eighth grader's grasp of the shared ideology but operational independence of the Islamist threat that links Bali to Madrid to Beslan to other outrages of the past three years.

John Kerry just doesn't get it. Because he just didn't get it eloquently, however, most though not all of the nation's media swooned. That collective response should be branded "Selective Gaffe Hearing Syndrome." If Kerry had declared himself of Martian descent, but had done so with a fine delivery, would Chris Matthews or Tim Russert have noticed?

Not that it matters. What matters is the substance because there is now developed an alternative message delivery system which does not depend on the agreement of the dinosaurs. An ad underlining "global test" appeared on Friday, courtesy of the Bush campaign, and Rush and other talkers were all over it. By Wednesday the groundwork had been laid, and Fox News and other cable shows carried the president's speech in its entirety that fully exploited Kerry's debate performance. Slowly but surely the blogosphere also turned its attention to the Kerry blunders, and Kerry's "momentum" faded and then reversed.

A week ago after the debate the Kerry campaign was experiencing the same sort of relief that swept through the passengers on the Titanic after the iceberg was passed and before they knew of the damage below the waterline.

What remains to be asked is why the "professionals" on the networks missed the "global test" remark that has proven so devastating? Rarely have so many commentators been so wrong about so obvious a pratfall as Kerry's global test, and given that pundits on both sides of the aisle missed it, the answer can't be bias. Of all the talkers I watched, only Fred Barnes and Mort Kondracke put a verbal circle around "global test." The rest were rushing to comment on Bush's facial expressions.

Fighting the last war, again, I think. Collectively recalling Al Gore's histrionics from 2000, the commentariat focused on demeanor to the exclusion of substance. If the substance is at least okay, that makes sense. But the president could wear a 24/7 smirk if John Kerry continues to insist to the American electorate that American sovereignty is subject to Security Council critiques, and that the mullahs should get what they need to fire up their reactors. It is one thing to mispronounce "moolahs." It is far worse to misunderstand them.

The first debate went to Bush because the memorable exchange is one that continues to rightfully dog Kerry. Bush supporters can hope for better delivery from their candidate, but should be praying for more of the same from John Kerry. A suicide note that impresses with its flourishes is poignant, but it's still a suicide note.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of a nationally syndicated radio show, and author most recently of If It's Not Close, They Can't Cheat: Crushing the Democrats in Every Election and Why Your Life Depends Upon It. His daily blog can be found at