The first of three televised Presidential debates—the Holy Grails of electioneering—arrives Monday as the race enters its homestretch. Finally.
Lights, cameras, arrrrrrrgh!
Somehow we feel cheated if we are not entertained by two candidates who aspire to head the planet’s most powerful nation. Or see it as failure when they don’t come across as warm and fuzzy TV characters yucking it up with Jimmy Fallon.
By historically framing presidential debates as entertainment, in fact, TV creates expectations among voters that have no bearing whatsoever on the realities of good governance. And they use the expectations they’ve created to justify their future reporting.
So get ready for even more excruciating noise, high-volume hooey and crescendoing gab. From Trumpet and Hillary Clinton? Oh, sure. But equally those tuneless kazoos known as media.
After a stint as party convention critics, many TV reporters and pundits have spent September recasting themselves as debate coaches, just as Trumpet himself has made several dozen costume changes since this odyssey began.
Instead of media chewing on what Trumpet and Hillary must do to serve wisely and honorably in the White House—do you believe in miracles?—their comments about each candidate these days center mostly on potential debate performance and stagecraft. In other words, the image each must present on camera to prevail in November.
It’s the horse race within the horse race, as if the candidate who meets the most of his or her debate goals is best suited to be President.
Forget that most TV journalists and pundits have no idea what it takes to “win” a presidential debate. Or even what that means. The very idea that many reporters believe their role is to give advice to candidates of either major party—in effect offering tips on campaign strategy and how to sway voters through image rather than substance—is not only surreal but outrageous. It contradicts every tenet of responsible journalism.
The few that remain.
The question of the hour: What does he/she have to do to win Monday?
An MSNBC voice cautioned Hillary not to be “mean” with Trumpet, adding: “She should be gracious and show “good humor.”
Noted a chin-stroking CNN sage: “He tugs at the heart, she tugs at the head, So she’s got to up her game in talking to the heart, he’s got to up his game in talking to the head.” And if one of them tugs a different body part? Don’t ask.
“She’s very defensive,” noted another CNN voice. “If that Hillary surfaces, the show’s up.” And a guest on Bill Maher’s HBO show proclaimed: “She must come out aggressively.”
But not too aggressively, right? After listening to all of this, I think I get the picture:
Hillary must be aggressive without appearing to be aggressive. She must convey softness through strength and resoluteness. She must make Trumpet appear to be a bully without appearing to be bullied. She must demonstrate she has prepared for the debate but not overplay her hand by appearing to have prepared. She must display superiority while not giving viewers the impression that she regards herself as superior. She must display command of facts, but not too many facts. She must have knowledge but not too much knowledge. She must show humility, for otherwise she’ll come across as someone Americans just cannot tolerate.
A smarty pants.
If Hillary must show strength without appearing insensitive, Trumpet, on the other hand, must show sensitivity without appearing weak. He must exploit Hillary’s aggression by veiling his own aggression in passivity without appearing passive. He must avoid the trap of being himself by not being himself while appearing to be himself. He must avoid being overbearing by being underbearing, letting Hillary appear to control the debate while actually controlling the debate himself. He has to be superior by appearing to be inferior while turning inferiority into a strength that makes Hillary appear inferior. He has to talk straight but not too straight, for what Americans despise almost as much as a smarty pants is a straighty pants.
Yet this strategy could favor Hillary, whose best chance to win the debate is to appear to lose the debate without sacrificing superiority. Got it? I thought so.