At my house, we watched the debate and passed the food. A friend's son, 20 years old and given to intravenous intake of any food he can't slip past his teeth, looked up from his 11th consecutive dessert when he heard George Bush say:
"In the presidency, a lot goes into it. Caring goes into it."
"Herring?" said the friend's son. "Did he say herring goes into the presidency?"
"Caring," I explained.
"What about herring?" the boy said. "Why can't herring go into it?"
All of us in the room snickered for a moment, and then stopped snickering because it seemed out of place. We were watching candidates for the presidency. To snicker was to violate the sanctity of the moment.
So then we snickered again. What sanctity? On the great scale of things, so to speak, why not herring in the presidency? Through the first two debates of this home stretch of the campaign, pickled fish are the only thing the candidates, presidential and vice, hadn't thrown at each other.
Dan Quayle as attack dog? He looks like a schoolboy who got beat up by the kids who got beat up by everybody else. Admiral Stockdale? He was a prisoner of war for seven years. Hasn't he suffered enough? And Al Gore, looking like everybody's candidate for student council rep, tried to sneak in one last Quayle-Kennedy comparison and immediately set the tone for the debate.
And then came Thursday night, in Richmond and on national television, when the people threw everything back in the presidential candidates' faces.
"How can we, as symbolically the children of the future president, expect the three of you to meet the needs in housing and in crime and you name it, as opposed to the wants of your political spin doctors and your political parties?" asked a man in the audience who identified himself as a domestic mediator.
His name was Denton Walthall, and suddenly he made all the herring jokes go away, and all the snickering, too, because he was saying the things in the minds of everyone despairing over this slum of a campaign.
"Can we focus on the issues," he said, "and not the personalities and the mud?"
In that moment, the presidential campaign of 1992 belatedly began to grow up, and to take on its first notions of dignity. This wasn't some commentator calling for decorum from a distant newsroom. It was Walthall as the voice of America, looking these men in the eye, and telling them to act their age.
George Bush, who'd just finished his latest slap at the Bill Clinton of 23 years ago, ran out of campaign in that moment. Three times, he was seen looking at his watch, as though calculating how many hours he has left in office. He seemed becalmed. (In a way, not a bad idea for Bush. When he gets shrill, and begins waving his arms about, he bears an unfortunate resemblance to Michael J. Fox's father in "Back to the Future.")
Clinton, too, seemed changed. He no longer seemed a man majoring in planned spontaneity, delivering over-rehearsed ad libs. And Perot? Well, he was reduced to repeating material from the last debate. He was a musician who couldn't get off the same note.
Plans for the next four years? "There are already plans all over Washington," Perot said. But what are his own? He's mentioned forming task forces, as though they're an answer. Does he think there aren't task forces currently wracking their brains?
But the evening's loser was Bush. A woman asked, "How has the national debt affected each of your lives? And if it hasn't, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what's ailing them?"
Bush fumbled the softball, started talking about interest rates. It was Michael Dukakis four years ago, not getting it when they asked him about Kitty. Worse, it fed into all the old suspicions about Bush that arose when, deep into the recession, he denied there was one: He doesn't connect. The question had to be explained to him, and explained again.
This sense of an emotionally distanced man was reinforced further in his closing statement. Ask yourself a simple question, the president said: If there's a crisis, who would you want in the Oval Office?
But there's already a crisis. Not the one the president meant, not some international flare-up, but the economy at home. Bush was the last man in America to figure it out. And now, late in the game, he still didn't seem to understand.