Not since Sydney Greenstreet’s Casper Gutman strode onto the screen in The Maltese Falcon, extolling the virtues of “clear speaking” while speaking himself in deliberately meaningless abstractions, has a fat, bald patriarch had as much trouble with the truth as Dick Cheney had during his debate with John Edwards last night.

If resolute father figures reassure you, then Cheney’s your man. But Cheney is the shiftiest patriarch since Gutman, and he needs all of his authoritative (and at times authoritarian) mien to distract listeners from the fictions he passes off as fact.

“I have not suggested there’s a connection between Iraq and 9/11,” the veep said last night — though on January 22, he had told the listeners of NPR’s Morning Edition, “There’s overwhelming evidence that there was a connection between al Qaeda and the Iraqi government.”

But Cheney is a master at denying he’s said what he’s said. In December 2001, he told Tim Russert on Meet the Press, “It’s been pretty well confirmed that [9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta] did go to Prague and he did meet with a senior official of the Iraqi intelligence service” there. The existence of that meeting has now been utterly discredited by the 9/11 Commission’s investigation and other intelligence agencies, and this June, Gloria Borger asked Cheney on CNBC’s Capital Report about his previous statement. “You have said in the past that it was, quote, ‘pretty well confirmed,’” she said. To which Cheney replied, “No, I never said that.”

All Cheney has going for him is that he doesn’t look like he’s lying. Gutman was all baroque affect in his speech; Cheney’s is as flat as an accountant’s report, livened by the occasional murderous zinger at a rival Big Five Firm. It takes a dogged opponent to challenge him at every turn, but for the first half of last night’s debate, John Edwards was clearly up to the task. Despite a generation gap that worked in Cheney’s favor — Edwards, though just 12 years younger than the veep, looks as if he could be his son; Cheney looks as if he was born on Social Security — Edwards gave the old man as good as he got without ever really losing his cool. (Cheney at times looked to be smoldering, even, or especially, when all we could see was the top of his head.)

Then the debate took a curious turn. As the discussion moved to domestic issues, where Edwards should have destroyed Cheney altogether, a question on gay marriage led Edwards to praise Dick and Lynne for not forcing their lesbian daughter, Mary, to live in the stables. Edwards sheathed his sword, and for the next 40 minutes, it remained stuck in his scabbard. He spent an ungodly amount of time defending himself and John Kerry on the subject of litigation and malpractice insurance, which is responsible for less than 1 percent of the rise in medical costs. He kept saying he wanted to contrast the Kerry-Edwards health plan with the Bush-Cheney health record, but he didn’t get to it until about 88 minutes into the 90-minute debate. His charge that Bush had sided with the drug industry over the American people hit the mark, but by then the combatants and the spectators were all wrung out.

But what was missing from the second half was Edwards’ populist zeal, his powerful condemnation of the widening divide between the two Americas. As in his speech at the Democratic National Convention, he failed to make his full case against the ruinous economics of the Bush presidency. At most, he provided an overture to the full-length diatribe John Kerry will have to belt out in the two remaining debates.

And Kerry, by all available evidence, should be up to that task. And Kerry, by all available evidence, needs to be.

LA Weekly