Finally, we see President Bush without his handlers. He stands, as if alone, on the debater's stage, without script, without buffers. His own policies are enlisted like troops to attack him. He has no defense against the failures of his own judgment.
Here we see a President thoroughly dependent on his "team." They formulate his policy. They communicate his intentions. Without their assistance even the basic question of his office - responsibility - seems unreal to him. One might think Americans would readily recall such a leader.
But George W. Bush will not be sent home to Crawford because he depends on others. He inherited the famous "teflon" from President Reagan. His dyslexicon has had an impenetrable charm. A crucial part of his managed message has been that he has good managers, as if to say "trust him because he trusts them." He achieved weirdly pastoral heights at the Republican convention. This, moored by or mired in the mud slung by Dick Cheney, seemed to be pushing him towards the finish line.
Then came the first debate. A force appeared on stage that is more powerful than the artifice of any candidate. It is more significant than George W. Bush's inability to stand on his own two feet. And it could swing the election out of his reach.
That force is politics. Not the jabbering of parties, but the basic fact identified by Aristotle and still with us today. Human beings who must live together can address problems with violence or speech. The political option is speech, and its democratic form is dialogue.
Dialogue is a natural extension of speech. It opens different perspectives and brings us towards truth. It also makes self-expression consistent with equality and dignity. What the first debate showed us, however, was something even more basic about the connection between dialogue and leadership.
The purpose of human speech is to be heard. Hearing, one reacts and speaks again. In this back and forth, everything depends on the kind of "fittingness" - much broader than civility - that Cicero called decorum. Say something without decorum and you will not be heard. You won't get the desired reaction.
There is no fixed rule-book of decorum. It is a sensibility one learns in dialogue itself. While it is important to learn about others, the key to democracy is that as each person seeks decorum in dialogue they must make adjustments. An unstated negotiation goes on within speech to make speech effective. Our world together grows together as we talk.
If getting elected is the measure, it will be difficult to judge before November 2 whether the artful staging of George W. Bush's campaign - with every word prepared in advance, and every chance for real interaction avoided - has been effective.
Yet, it may be, as the Founders might have said, "God's nature," the political nature of human beings, that removes George W. Bush from the White House. For, managers or not, he has been sequestered from dialogue at every level and every turn. He has no conferences with the press. Only avid supporters may attend his stops on the campaign trail. By all reports, he brooks no objection even within his inner circle.
While our President presents himself as a man of unshakeable principles, the truth is that without dialogue one's character withers. The common sense of the people advances while the leader lags behind. One's capacity for speech - which means not just the arrangement of one word after another, but a suppleness of character that allows for learning and adjustment to new facts - is arrested. The exorcism of dialogue from President Bush's daily life has had a devastating effect on who he is and how Americans see him.
Presidential power is sermonic: it is a relation established in words between the leader and the people. Effect depends on decorum. Decorum, in turn, arises within an on-going relationship between the President and the people.
After almost four years of holding himself apart from dialogue, of engaging in the spectacle of leadership without leading, here is what we saw on that debater's platform: George W. Bush was out of place. We are no longer familiar with his capacities or incapacities. Of course he looked weak compared to John Kerry. But he looked pathetic compared to his image of himself. The American common sense of decorum has advanced in the national dialogue without George W. Bush's participation. He has now shown himself to be unfit for the presidency.