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"So if it's time for action, I think I've got experience that counts. If it's more time for talk and gridlock and finger-pointing, I'm the wrong man."
There was silence in the hall. Perot had rocked the audience. He was not going to be a mere factor in this debate. It was clear the little man with the Texas drawl had the ability to dominate the event.
The next question was for the president, and it cut directly to the heart of the matter--Bush's attempt to assassinate Clinton's character in the days leading up to the debate.
"Are there important issues of character separating you from these other two men?" asked Lehrer in a tone that sounded almost bored.
"I think the American people should be the judge of that," Bush began. "I think character is a very important question. I was accused the other day of being something like Joe McCarthy because I questioned--I'll put it this way--I think it's wrong to demonstrate against your own country, or organize demonstrations against your own country on foreign soil.
"I just think it's wrong. I--well, maybe they say, 'That was a youthful indiscretion.' I was 19 or 20, flying off an aircraft carrier and that shaped me to be commander in chief of the armed forces. And I'm sorry, but demonstrating--it's not a question of patriotism. It's a question of character and judgment.
"I just find it impossible to understand how an American can demonstrate against his own country--even organizing demonstrations against it--when young men are held prisoner in Hanoi, or kids out of the ghetto were drafted."
You had to notice the strange way Bush pronounced "ghetto," as if it had four ts in it.
"I couldn't do that and I don't think most Americans could do that. Why not admit it? Say I made a terrible mistake.
"How could you be commander in chief of the armed forces and have some kid say when you have to make a tough decision, as I did in Panama or Kuwait, and then have some kid jump up and say, 'I'm not gonna go. The commander in chief was organizing demonstrations halfway around the world during another era.'"
Bush's words were greeted by silence. But the camera had shifted while he spoke. You could see Clinton staring daggers at the president.
Perot was asked to comment.
Perot backed Clinton, pointing out that transgressions committed during a man's youth need not pursue him for the rest of his life. Then he took another blast at Bush.
"When you're a senior official in the federal government, spending billions of dollars in taxpayers' money, and you're a mature individual, then that was on our ticket.
"Believe me, the party's over. It's time for the cleanup crew. We need change. People who never take responsibility for anything. . . ."
Lehrer interrupted. "Your time is up."
Perot grinned: "Your time is up," he parroted.
There was laughter all around the room.
"More later," Perot said, raising his voice above the laughter.
@body:Clinton was next. On his face was a mixture of concern and disappointment. It was, of course, a debater's ploy. But Clinton had prepared himself carefully for this very moment. All week long, political experts had been giving Clinton advice on the morning television news shows about how he must handle this matter. They all advised Clinton to confront Bush directly and stare him down. Now Clinton seemed to be taking this advice to heart. He turned directly to Bush, who turned and stared back. And in his opening phrase, Clinton deliberately referred to Bush as "Mister" and not "President."
"I've got to respond directly to Mr. Bush," Clinton said. "You have questioned my patriotism. You even brought some right-wing congressmen into the White House to plot how to attack me for going to Russia in 1969 when over 50,000 other Americans did.
"Now, I honor your service in World War II. I honor Mr. Perot's service in uniform and the service of every other man and woman who ever served, including Admiral Crowe, who was the chairman of your Joint Chiefs and who's supporting me.
"But when Joe McCarthy went around this country attacking people's patriotism, he was wrong. And a senator from Connecticut named Prescott Bush stood up to him."
Bush's head nodded. He seemed about to interrupt.
"Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy," Clinton added. "You were wrong to attack my patriotism. I was opposed to the war but I love my country, and we need a president who'll bring this country together and not divide it.
"We've had enough division. I want to lead a unified country."
Clinton had his reply down letter perfect. He didn't miss a nuance. His remarks were greeted by a genuine burst of applause from the audience. Clinton had taken his best shot at Bush and appeared--at least for the moment--to have won.
The debate still had more than an hour to go. But it was all downhill from here. Only Perot with his one-liners and Texas drawl kept the people awake. Perot talked not only sense but managed to be entertaining while doing so.
We are left with a serious question. How many voters will gear themselves up to watch the remaining debates? I forgot. Dan Quayle will be in the vice presidential debate. Thank God for small favors.