There was a certain sadness connected to the presidential-candidate debate of last week, the first in a series of three. The sadness had to do with a president who was, as a professor used to say, "here but not here," when a sluggardly student failed to perform properly, either because he knew the facts but was not engaged or was simply unprepared. Bush, on the record, exemplified the former, but came off looking like the latter. He might as well have been somewhere else. He even looked bored, at the very time he needed to be bright and quick.

Kerry, like his running mate, a lawyer, put on a good performance, talking a great game but offering no strategies to bring it off…sort of like impressing the jury either to get an acquittal or a light sentence for a client, but without much to go on in the process. He was well rehearsed, knew the hot buttons to push, and thought well on his feet, as any good lawyer should be able to do.

By contrast, Bush appeared to have just gotten out of the shower a few minutes before and skipped dinner (or maybe supper, in Texas and Kentucky). He let Kerry's charges go unanswered - even those having to do with the president being a liar. That's hard to imagine in light of the actual facts concerning Kerry's major claim to eligibility concerning the presidency - his Vietnam experience of four months. This wouldn't actually be an issue except that Kerry has made it an issue in all his campaigns. His record of activities, both Vietnam and post-Vietnam, is dismal, even unpatriotic…some might say, even traitorous. He could hardly call anyone else a liar, but he did.

In answer to Kerry's charge that the Iraqi conflict is not being handled properly, the president could have elaborated on the fact that large parts of Iraq are pacified and even self-governing already - but he didn't. With respect to the charge that proper planning for peace didn't take place, Bush could have noted that in times of war there are no guarantees and that often the commander is forced to simply play it by ear. The notion that calculations regarding armed conflict, both during and after its waging, can be determined with specificity is foolish, as found in the lessons of history. In the Civil War, Lincoln went through generals like a knife though hot butter before finding one, U.S. Grant, who had both the will and the skill to fight. Southern General Lee might have done better at Gettysburg, except that his eyes and ears, the cavalry of Jeb Stuart, was unavailable and could not tell him where the Union army was. The bloody battle of Perryville, Ky., was sort of accidental as each army was searching for water. These facts, among a plethora of others, are examples of unintended consequences, notwithstanding all efforts at making accurate calculations.

Perhaps the worst miscalculation of World War II was simply that no one expected the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor on a Sunday morning, especially since Japanese representatives were in Washington that day dealing with an agreement/ultimatum or whatever. In the fall of 1944, American troops in Europe talked of being home by Christmas, but then came the "Battle of the Bulge," the Germans mounting a magnificent offensive that caught the Allies completely by surprise and eventuated in a horrible loss of lives and extending the war deep into 1945. Despite a ferocious bombardment designed to wreck Japanese forces on the island of Iwo Jima, American troops suffered 6,821 deaths in the 36-day battle in February 1945. The Japanese, surprisingly, were totally dug in, hardly fazed by the incessant shelling, and nearly all the more than 20,000 of them were killed in the deadly fight to the finish. Who would have thought it…on either side?

In 1950, most commanders in Korea shared General MacArthur's confidence during the fall that the Korean Conflict would be over by Christmas. Then came the Chinese, who MacArthur thought would be used for defense only. He miscalculated and the war dragged on until August 1953, with great loss of American lives. With members of Congress predicting American deaths in the thousands in 1991 in the fight to free Kuwait, the ground war was over in 100 hours, with few casualties. Who would have thought it?

When Kerry brought up the subject of loss of life, President Bush could have noted the effectiveness of the current fighting machine, citing comparisons of the number of deaths in Iraq with those of other wars. Since the beginning of hostilities about a year and a half ago, there has been an average of two American military deaths per day, whether by combat, accident, disease or other. During the Vietnam War era (roughly 1964-72), the average was 20 dead per day. During the Korean Conflict (1950-53), the average number of military deaths was 34 per day. During the roughly four-and-a-half actual years of combat in the combined World War I and II eras (1917-18, 1942-45), the average number of deaths per day was a shocking 320. In those two wars alone, a number larger than that of the deaths on 9/11 died every ten days through a period of 1,643 days. The bloody per-day average of military deaths during the Civil War of 1861-65 was an unbelievable 340.

In conjunction with the above, the president could have made much of the fact that the people of this country have always been willing to accept sacrifice in the name of preserving their liberty and way of life, but that the daily sacrifices in the current conflict, notwithstanding that the loss of one life or the maiming of one soldier is unacceptable unless absolutely vital, are nowhere near as numerically horrifying as those of other wars. Instead, he constantly talked about the "hard work" involved.

Toward the end of the debate, Bush managed to make a salient point in the foreign affairs debate when Kerry spoke of making further military action contingent upon something called a global test, which seemed another way of saying, "Do nothing without permission from the (hopelessly irrelevant) United Nations." Bush seized upon this statement to make the point that the president's primary task is to keep the citizens of the United States safe and free regardless of the policies of any other nation or consortium of nations. Kerry's insistence that he could "pull" other nations into the Iraqi affair had to fall on deaf ears. Other nations are waiting for this country to do the dirty work and then step in to vie for the rewards. A ninth-grade civics student knows this much.