Award-winning authors Bill Press and Ronald Kessler, respectively anti-Bush and pro-Bush, engaged in a thorough debate on the president's policies last night in one of a series of events hosted by Mock Election and a number of other organizations on campus.
The questions asked by moderator Prof. Isaac Kramnick, vice provost of undergraduate education, ranged anywhere from the moral and intellectual qualities each debater wanted to see in a president to Bush's policies on Iraq, the military and even briefly the increasing gap between the rich and poor as well as environmental policy.
Student asked about the debaters' positions on gay marriage and whether the world is generally safer as a result of Bush's policies.
Bill Press, author of Bush Must Go: The Top Ten Reasons Why George Bush Doesn't Deserve a Second Term, argued that "This [election] is a referendum on George W. Bush ... If you're running for re-election in this country, your contract is up. The president works for us. We're his employer. So, it's our duty ... to take a look at how well he's done in the last four years." He moved on to argue that Bush must be replaced by Kerry.
Ronald Kessler, who wrote A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush, argued "Bush's attitude is, 'I don't want to be in the same position I was in on 9/11,' where we looked back and said we simply didn't do enough to protect our country. That's simply all George Bush is about ... the fact is that Saddam would still be in power today if John Kerry had had his way." Kessler said that Bush's top priority remains the protection of the United States.
"I interviewed all his friends, all his top aides. ... What I found was quite a different picture from what you see in the media," Kessler said. "The Bush White House is very secretive. It is very hard for the
media to find out what really goes on. [The media relies] on second-hand accounts out of the State Department from people who hate Bush. But the fact is that Bush operates like a very good CEO ... he solicits different views, he reads the briefing materials, he asks question about areas that they frequently haven't even heard about and then he makes up his mind. He does solicit different views; that is why he has Colin Powell in his cabinet." Press also commented on presidential decision-making.
"I think what George Bush lacks is what I want to see in a president, which is intellectual curiosity. I want a President who wants to know everything about a subject before he makes a decision ... Bill Clinton was like that. George Bush is just the opposite," Press said. "I want a president who is open to new information, who wants to hear from all sides, and then makes a decision. And even after he makes a decision, is willing to listen to new information and weigh information."
When asked about the wars on Iraq and on terror, Press claimed, "We lost the focus, as John Kerry says, 'we outsourced the job.' We were on Osama Bin Laden's trail. We almost had him, and then we walked away from that, left the Al Qaeda [network] behind, and focused on Saddam Hussein in Iraq where Al Qaeda was not. So that's, I think, the problem with the war on terror."
However, Kessler immediately refuted, "It's wrong to say that because we went to Iraq, the war on terror has been undermined; it's like saying the FBI should not go after kidnappers until they've wiped out the mafia."
Other topics of debate included the role of religion in politics, Kerry's record on the Gulf wars, the status of the economy and the military draft.
The debate as a whole received mixed reviews from its audience while the overall mood between Kessler and Press was upbeat and frequently humorous; Kessler even admitted at one point that he had voted for Al Gore in 2000.
Nitin Chadda '07, senior editor of The Cornell Review, attended the debate.
"Mr. Press is very much about talking points; I was really disappointed to see him in that context, where he was aiming at making people laugh, and not really concerned with making a valid point and the arguments that he should be making, which he didn't do very well," Chadda said. "Whereas you have someone like Mr. Kessler; he's a writer ... he doesn't really speak publicly but he has factual information about his position, because he's written books about it, and he was an operative within the CIA and has written for the best newspapers that exist today. Basically [I have a] general disappointment at Mr. Press and his inability to articulate the position of his party and just throwing out talking points that he probably got from the website of the candidate he now supports."
Jonathan Murphy '06 had a different outlook on the debate. "It would appear that while Press's argument was that Bush was duping us into going into Iraq, Kessler's overriding rebuttal was that the war on terrorism, as run by the CIA, was a success -- 'we haven't been attacked in three years' -- and that because the CIA needs secrecy, we should accept it as working. It's sort of like saying, somewhat disingenuously, 'Just trust us...,'" Murphy argued.
Thomas Bruce, vice president for communications and media relations, was also present at the debate between Kessler and Press. He commented, "I think the debate is a wonderful example of what I think is much more of a tradition of Cornell that Cornell recognizes, which is that students like to hear from all sides and this is a very good example of that: this ability to invite both sides and listen to the debate, enjoy it and especially ask very good questions. So, I think this was a big success, from my point of view."
The Sun is a co-sponsor of Mock Election.