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The great jazz singer, Peggy Lee, might have asked, "Is that all there is?" after the third painful campaign debate. There were impressive moderators, looking intense and impartial; sturdy lecterns; and an audience sworn to silence. But there were no real debates, only the repetition of empty justifications and promises of quick fixes.

Though formality prevented him from rolling up his sleeves, President Bush maintained that "I can clear a whole field of brush with my sweaty bare hands" look, except when he bludgeoned Sen. John Kerry with an occasional involuntary grimace.

Kerry looked less scholarly, so he did not give the impression that his killer instinct had been dulled during lapses into quiet deliberation. Has there ever been a time in our history when wisdom and good judgment have been more suspect, giving way to mindless fury and blind retribution?

We can forgive Kerry, then, if he held back justifiable outrage, aimed at a president whose arrogant claim to spiritual exclusivity has convinced too many Americans that his Iraq war was inspired by God, that it remains a powerful instrument of supreme patriotism. The debate suffered because Kerry's voice was sometimes muted and hollow in the presence of a self-proclaimed divinity.

Norm Tederous