Emperor. No clothes.

Punk’d. Served. Schooled. Owned. Faced. Stomped. Taken to the woodshed. Blown out of the water.

However you describe it, John Kerry gave George W. Bush what was objectively the worst beatdown in the history of American presidential debates last week, going through the president like a hot knife through butter in front of a TV audience of 63 million.

Never has Bush looked more impotent and pathetic. Never has the cold, hard, awful truth been more obvious: The man isn’t qualified to paint your porch, much less be your president.

From the deer-in-the-headlights gaze to the jittery facial tics to the mindless repetition of the same few phrases of gibberish, the debate proved beyond any further doubt that -- sadly -- Bush is too weak a man to lead the free world against the challenges it faces.

This doesn’t mean Kerry will win the election. It doesn’t even mean he will win the next debate. All it means is that for one brief shining moment, digitally preserved for all time, we saw with our own eyes that the emperor has no clothes.

As with the old fable, I’m not supposed to be writing any of this. Since 9/11, American journalists have had an unspoken agreement -- and in the case of Fox News, a clearly spoken agreement -- to “take it easy” on Bush.

Some of this is patriotism, like the WWII photographers never taking a picture of FDR in his wheelchair. Some of it is old-boy network, like when ‘60s journalists covered up John F. Kennedy’s blatant philandering.

Some of it is fear of losing our jobs. While most journalists tend to be liberal -- there, I said it, it’s true -- almost all the newspapers and TV and radio stations we work at are owned by conservative Republicans. Yes, even at so-called alternative newspapers like this one, our paychecks are signed more often than not by Bush supporters.

So there are real risks involved anytime you say the emperor is butt-naked. A friend of mine actually lost a restoration job because she casually mentioned she was going to see Fahrenheit 9/11. A woman in Alabama was fired for having a Kerry bumper sticker on her car (the Kerry campaign, showing rare good PR sense, immediately hired her).

I’d rather keep a shred of dignity intact, job or no job. I know damn well what I saw last Thursday night. And when I’m collecting unemployment... I’ll still know what I saw.

A few in the media continue to rave about the emperor’s fabulous new clothes. Their “conventional wisdom” beforehand was that the debate was the key moment in the campaign, Kerry’s last, best chance to regain the initiative. But when Bush wilted like a hothouse flower under Kerry’s challenge, the “conventional wisdom” suddenly changed, didn’t it? The new party line was that Bush’s “heartfelt” mumbling won the day over Kerry’s ability to behave like a professional when it counts.

Like the old joke where the cuckolded husband is told, “Who you gonna believe -- me or your lying eyes?”, the pundits said, yes, 63 million Americans may have witnessed Bush getting his ass handed to him on national TV. But, they said, public opinion often swings the other way after a few days of media “analysis.” Propaganda, in other words.

On AM talk radio, they explained Bush’s miserable performance by saying -- get this -- he was tired from helping hurricane victims all day! Have you ever heard such a candy-ass excuse? Those darn hurricane victims -- inconveniencing our poor Dubya like that.

(This childlike inability to identify with other people’s problems seems to be a pattern with many Bush supporters, though thankfully not all of them. For example, the smear campaign against Max Cleland because he only lost three limbs in Vietnam rather than parting with all four. Maybe they take their cue from Bush himself, who whines about what “hard work” it is to be president while U.S. troops in Iraq dodge RPGs and car bombs in 110 degree heat.)

Happily, the new “conventional wisdom” doesn’t seem to be taking hold. For an hour and a half in south Florida, America could directly compare Bush and Kerry without the media’s filter, and the effect was devastating.

The truth is like that. Not even an emperor is immune.

Still, I do not fool myself. There is every likelihood that in January 2005 the man putting his hand on the Bible to run the country for the next four years will be Bush, not Kerry. I have no illusions about this, and you shouldn’t either.

But I know what I saw last Thursday night, and no pink slip or election result can ever change that. No matter who wins on Nov. 2, there will always be The Debate -- proof positive for all future generations that George W. Bush unraveled like a cheap sweater for the whole world to see.

Yeah, I know, Mr. Bush, it’s “hard work” being president. Almost as hard as having to put up with you.


As of this writing anyway, Jim is editor in chief of Connect Savannah.