Friday, October 01, 2004


The USA Today post-debate poll:
What did it measure and what does it have to do with the Song of Roland?

A quick perusal of the USA Today post-debate poll shows the debate as a significant "win" for Kerry.

Regardless of which candidate you happen to support, who do you think did the better job in the debate: John Kerry or George W. Bush?

Kerry 53%   Bush 37%

This trend continues across several categories: opinion of Kerry improved in the minds of 46% vs. 21% for Bush. And an overwhelming majority of viewers thought Kerry expressed himself more clearly than Bush and that he was fair in his criticism of Bush.

But there are other results that are mind-boggling.

[R]egardless of which presidential candidate you support, please tell me if you think John Kerry or George W. Bush would better handle the situation in Iraq.

Kerry 43%   Bush 54%

This represented only a 3% improvement over the pre-debate poll.

Who do you trust more to handle the responsibilities of commander-in-chief of the military: John Kerry, or George W. Bush?

Kerry 44%   Bush 54% —only a 2% improvement for Kerry

Was more believable

Kerry 45%   Bush 50%

Was more likeable

Kerry 41%   Bush 48%

Demonstrated he is tough enough for the job

Kerry 37%   Bush 54%

The Republicans will likely spin the results by stating something such as "Bush was viewed as superior to Kerry on a majority of the questions in the poll."

That is true, but terribly misleading. The reason is this: Many of the poll questions were measuring the same underlying perception—i.e., a person who thinks that George W. Bush would better handle the situation in Iraq is also likely to think that Bush would be the better commander-in-chief; that he would be tougher; and therefore more believable and likeable.

To put it another way, the poll had a lot of redundancy built into the questions, which clustered about a single underlying perception.

Some polls do this on purpose, with the intent of better trying to capture this underlying perception. Sometimes it's done by happenstance or ignorance on the part of the pollster. And sometimes it can be a neat little trick to provide fodder for spinmeisters! I don't know which is the case here, but I'd like my readers to be alert to the possibilities.

Tales from the Pink Snapper

That said, I have to wonder what is the underlying perception of Bush that this poll measures. To find out what's really going on, I don't pay attention to polls; I listen to my friends at the Pink Snapper. And during the last hurricane and its aftermath we had ample opportunity to consult.

My friend (I'll call him "Danny") intends to vote for Bush. He has a son who served in the Middle East, though not in Iraq, and is now out of the military. He also has a nephew who was recently in Iraq.

He says he doesn't agree with a lot of things that Bush has done. He doesn't like how Bush has handled the economy. He's not even sure that going into Iraq was the right thing to do. "But," he says, "right or wrong at least he did something!"

I suspect he has said a mouthful. After 9/11 the American public was angry, to say the least, and frustrated. We quickly went into Afghanistan in pursuit of bin-Laden only to end up empty-handed. The need for retribution went unfulfilled, and the frustration was heightened.

But Bush kept up the persona of a man who was hopping mad about what had happened to America. The condition of American society could not have been riper to launch another war. The public, especially the male half, found relief in aggression. As Danny says, "Right or wrong at least he did something."

And this is the mistake that Kerry is making. My friend Danny might agree with every criticism that Kerry makes of Bush's conduct of the Iraq war, yet at the end of the day support Bush "because at least he did something."

Kerry must understand the combination of rage and romanticism that drives the American male, especially the Southern subspecies. The rage often grows out of the circumstances of his own life and is easily projected onto foreign powers, or just "foreigners." The romanticism is just something a Southern boy is "born with."

I would recommend that Kerry or his advisors pick up a decent translation of "The Song of Roland," an 11th-century French epic. Hell, I'll even provide some excerpts.

Roland, nephew of Charlemagne and a young hot-head, counsels his uncle against accepting the offer of Marsile, a Moor (Muslim): that if Charlemagne will get out of Spain and return to France, Marsile will follow, convert to Christianity and become a vassel. Roland is feeling rather invincible.

Sire, have no faith in the words of Marsile. When have we found aught but treachery in the Saracen? For seven years I have been winning victories for you here in Spain. Once before you yielded to such a message as this, from this same Marsile, and lost, in consequence, the heads of your Counts Bazan and Bazile. War on as you have begun. Besiege his city! subdue Saragossa!

But the king decides to send Ganelon, Roland's stepfather, as an emissary to Marsile. When Ganelon arrives, Marsile intends to kill him, but Ganelon betrays Roland and convinces Marsile that he can attack Charlemagne's rearguard, which will be led by Roland. And so the plan proceeds.

When the attack comes, Roland refuses to ask for help.

Then Olivier, when from the hill he saw the one hundred thousand Saracens, their helmets bedecked with gold, their shields shining in the sun, besought his friend to sound his horn, the olifant, and summon the king to their aid.

"Never will I so disgrace myself!" exclaimed Roland. "Never shall sweet France be so dishonored. One hundred thousand blows shall I give with my sword, my Durendal, and the Moors will fall and die!"

Well, contrary to Roland's expectations the Moors make mincemeat of the undermanned Christians, and Roland finally decides to ask for help.

When Roland perceived that in spite of their mighty efforts the passes were still filled with heathen knights, and the French ranks were fast thinning, he said to Olivier, "What think you if we call the king?"

"Never!" exclaimed Olivier. "Better death now than shame!"

"If I blow, Carle will hear it now and return. I shall blow my olifant," cried Roland.

"When I begged you to blow it," said Olivier, "you refused, when you could have saved the lives of all of us. You will show no valor if you blow it now."

Of course, by this time it's too late anyway, but the Archbishop tries to reconcile the friends.

"Carle will come too late to save our lives," said he, "but he will reach the field in time to preserve our mangled bodies and wreak vengeance on our foes."

Roland put his horn to his lips and blew with such force that his temples burst and the crimson blood poured forth from his mouth. Three times he sounded his horn, and each time the sound brought anguish to the heart of Carle, who heard it, riding thirty leagues away. "Our men make battle!" cried he

Charlemagne turns his forces around. Everyone is hopping mad.

All the army wept aloud as they thought of the doom of Roland. High were the mountains, deep the valleys, swift the rushing streams. The French rode on, answering the sound of the olifant; the emperor rode, filled with grief and rage; the barons spurred their horses, but in vain.

Roland is about to die but worries that his sword Durendal "would fall into other than Christian hands."

Ill could he bear to be parted from his beloved sword. Its golden hilt contained rare relics—a tooth of Saint Peter, blood, hair, and bones of other saints, and by the strength of these holy relics it had conquered vast realms. Ten and more mighty blows he struck with Durendal upon the hard rock of the terrace, in the endeavor to break it; but it neither broke nor blunted. Then, counting over his great victories, he placed it and the olifant beneath him, and committed his soul to the Father, who sent down his angels to bear it to Paradise.

So God's angels bear Roland's sword and soul away. Then Charlemagne returns and routs the Moors. But another Emir, an ally of Marsile's, shows up with his army.

The emir's army was countless, and Charlemagne's was weakened by its great loss. But the thought of the slaughtered peers spurred on the French, and with great Carle for their leader, they quickly put the pagans to flight.

The Franks pursued the enemy to Saragossa, where the wounded Marsile expired on hearing of his defeat. The city was taken, its inhabitants either slain, or converted and baptized, and Queen Bramimunde taken to France to be won to the true faith by gentler means.

In the end Charlemagne hopes that his trials are over, but for Christians, there's always another war just around the corner.

Ganelon was punished; Bramimunde was made a Christian, and the emperor thought at last to have peace. But as night fell and he sought rest in his lofty room, Gabriel appeared to him.

"Summon thy hosts and march into Bire to succor King Vivien. The Christians look to thee for help."

The king wept and tore his beard. "So troubled is my life!" said he.

George Bush, who has never been to war, understands this story in his own little addled way. John Kerry, who has been to war, does not.

I suspect that to Kerry this is a great fiction, but he had best understand that it is the great fiction of our time.

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