Prelude: “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen.
Once upon a time, a vain Emperor hired two weavers to create the finest suit of clothes in the kingdom for him to wear and display to his people. They promised him a suit that would be invisible to the masses who are “hopelessly stupid.” After the weavers report they are finished, they pretend to dress him in the new finery. The Emperor goes forth to parade before his subjects who appear to accept the pretense. Suddenly, a young child in the crowd points his finger and calls out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!” . (This fable has been translated into over 100 languages.)
Act One of the Drama.
At nine o’clock, NBC Moderator Lester Holt introduced Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to the cheering thousands in the audience at Hofstra University in New York . They both walked in confidently to shake hands and wave to their supporters. His hand rested lightly on her back for a moment. Clinton was radiant in a vibrant red pant suit, hair and makeup perfect. Trump was resplendent in a classic dark suit with a blue tie instead of his signature red. They were smiling and appeared ready as Holt asked Clinton the first question. She won the coin toss: perhaps it was a good sign of what would follow.
As we watched the debate unfold, some of us remembered the very first televised presidential debate in 1960 between Richard M. Nixon, Republican Vice President and John F. Kennedy , Democratic Senator from New York. The debate took place in a warm television studio without an audience . The screen was black and white and appeared grainy at times, a marked contrast with the natural bright colors of today. The two men took turns answering questions with close-ups of their faces. Jack Kennedy appeared at ease, handsome and confident as he spoke with his signature Boston accent. Richard Nixon looked thin, nervous and uncomfortable with sweat showing on his brow and upper lip. They were photographed separately as they answered the questions. There was no split screen to see them side by side as the debate progressed. The aftermath of the debate showed a mixed public reaction. Those who heard it on the radio said that Richard Nixon had won with his detailed answers. Those who saw the two men on television said that Jack Kennedy had been the winner of the debate. The adage that truth lies in the “eye of the beholder” was made very clear that day.
When Trump and Clinton stood for ninety minutes before 84 million American viewers, they were also being watched across the entire world. It was their first time together although each had been in different debate contests before. Trump had bested sixteen opponents in the Republican primaries with his free wheeling, combative style of personal insults and headline grabbing proposals to deport eleven million undocumented immigrants, build a wall that Mexico would pay for to keep our borders free, and ban Muslims from coming to the United States. Hillary had debated Bernie Sanders for months in spirited contests until she reached the number of pledged delegates to secure the nomination. She also had the experience of having debated Barack Obama dozens of times during the hotly contested 2008 primary election. When he reached the needed delegate number to win the nomination, she bowed out with her “l8 cracks in the glass ceiling” speech and nominated Obama at the Democratic convention.
As we watched the September 26 Debate, the contrast between the two opponents was shown side by side on split screens. We heard each one respond to Holt’s questions while we also were able to watch the other at the same time and hear any interruptive comments. We knew instantly that Trump avoided answering certain questions, veering off to a different topic. We were very aware of interruptive comments from either one during an answer. Were they looking at each other? What were their facial expressions? Body language? Trump had a greater variety of movements and facial expressions. He fidgeted, grimaced, adjusted his mike, shook his head, pursed his lips, sniffed, squinted, smirked and took sips of water. She turned to look at him when he spoke, appeared calm and amused at times with his statements and charges. Clinton laughed out loud once or twice and seemed energized throughout the ninety minutes. Trump appeared to fade after the first 30 minutes, perhaps the result of having been with his primary opponents rather than one-on- one with no time to rest. It was dramatic theater throughout as much as a debate.
Highlights of the Debate:
Holt asked Trump what he meant when he said at a rally that Clinton doesn’t have “a presidential look.” Trump replied, “She doesn’t have the look. She doesn’t have the stamina.” Clinton responded, “ Well, as soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease fire, a realease of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world or even spends eleven hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina.” Forbidden applause and cheers erupted from the audience.
Trump belittled the fact that Clinton had prepared for the debate. She replied. “Yes, I prepared for the debate. And do you know what else I prepared for, Donald? I prepared to be president.” Again, the audience broke into cheers and clapping.
When Trump was asked by Clinton why he hadn’t released his tax returns, he gave the false excuse that he was being audited. He was reminded that was not a valid excuse. She asked him if he paid any taxes at all, and what was he hiding. He interjected, “That makes me smart.” This became a major negative for him in the post debate commentary by the TV and news media in the days that followed.
The debate closed with Clinton bringing up the time when a young Argentine woman won the Miss Universe Pageant, a Trump event. “He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them. And he called this woman, ‘Miss Piggy’. Then he called her ‘Miss Housekeeping’ because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name. Her name is Alicia Machado.’” Trump did not deny her charge. He said that Rosie O’Donnell was the target of some of the epithets and “she deserves it.”
After the Debate.
Hillary joined Bill, Chelsea and friends in the front rows. She looked jubilant and they left for home. Trump followed by his wife and children went to the Spin Room where he bragged that he had won the debate. He spoke with some of the reporters and appeared to be satisfied that he had done very well.
CNN conducted their poll and found Clinton the winner with 67 percent and Trump with 27 percent as winner.
CNN and MSNBC commentators were in agreement that Clinton had been prepared throughout and scored a complete victory with her informed answers, calm demeanor and humor. She was “the adult in the room” while Trump was his usual self, aggressive, rambling and interrupting her 51 times (Vox) . It remains to be seen if his family and advisors can convince him to prepare for the next debate on Sunday October 9 in St. Louis.