Bush vs. Saddam - (Fantasy) debate of the century

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Saddam Hussein's invitation to debate President Bush has people wondering how such an event might be pulled off. Town hall format? Roaming the crowd like Oprah? Firing a gun in the air to make a point?

One master of debate preparation says Saddam probably is most familiar with a shark-tank format. "He dangles his debate opponent over a shark tank and then cuts the rope," guessed Paul Begala, who helped Democrat Al Gore rehearse for matchups with Bush.

It happens in every campaign -- the underdog agitates for an attention-grabbing debate and his opponent plays hard to get. In this circumstance, Bush is impossible to get.

But that hasn't stopped people from fantasizing what Bush vs. Saddam on stage would be like.

If the Iraqi president has one thing going for him, it might be low expectations. The authoritarian leader is thought to be rusty on the give and take of politics, and if he should turn out to have a rapier wit, he might win points.

Bush, for example, beat expectations in the 2000 campaign. People were sure the policy-polished and well-spoken Gore would run circles around the Texas governor, who mangles words and was making his first bid for national office. Bush surprised the doubters.

Still, much is stacked against Saddam, including the risk of looking like a fish out of the tank. "The problem Saddam has, is that whenever he's had to debate anybody in his life he just kills them," Begala said Tuesday.

Debating tips

American political history offers a number of do's and don'ts that Saddam, as the newcomer to U.S.-style discourse, might want to keep in mind:

Shave. A five-o'clock-shadow helped sink Richard Nixon in his first matchup with John Kennedy in September 1960; Saddam also looks overly stern if not swarthy at times.

No sighing. Gore's loud sighs, indicating exasperation with his opponent, served him poorly in 2000.

Clothes and gestures matter. Apart from the bearded look that hurt him in 1960, Nixon wore a gray suit that washed him out against the gray studio background. Kennedy's blue suit gave him contrast on black and white TV.

Saddam's penchant for wearing uniforms, and shooting a rifle into the air, might make him appear less approachable.

No clock watching. The first President Bush looked at his watch several times in a 1992 debate with Bill Clinton about the recession. Saddam would want to avoid coming across as similarly unmoved by the plight of average people.

The logistics of a Bush-Saddam debate would be daunting. All-American debates are tough enough.

Republican consultant Chris Depino, involved in negotiations for a Connecticut debate between Clinton and Bob Dole in 1996, was struck by the squabbling over details and how aides catered to the candidates as if they were rock stars.

"It even gets down to what kind of spring water they like in the prep room," he said.

In 2000, Gore concerned himself with the ambient temperature of the debate hall and how it might rise once several hundred people were in the room.

Begala, a CNN "Crossfire" host, was a political adviser to President Clinton and served as a mock Bush in debate warmups with Gore.

As much as he wanted to help defeat Bush, Begala admired the Republican's debating skills. "He knows what he wants to accomplish," he said. "He comes up with a game plan and sticks to it."

Bush's game plan for this contest rests on a force of more than 180,000 soldiers, sailors and aviators now arrayed against Iraq, with more coming by the day.

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