WHAT THEY HAVE TO DO TO WIN

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.

STILL MOWING THEM DOWN

No contest!

Donald Trump wins TV interviews through attrition, abetted by his questioners’ incompetence or resistance to bending their rigid program formats in the interest of truth and clarity.

Trump famously wears down interviewers with marathon stream-of-conscious riffs, benefiting hugely when they don’t require him to back up his tall tales—demand it on the spot—before speeding forward to the next question. Most of these interviewers haven’t the will or mental dexterity to engage in close-quarters combat with Trump. So they wilt; after each encounter, you can see his footprints on them.

And the smarter, more competent interviewers are too shackled by their stopwatches—must get on to the next interview—to go off script and take time to make him fully accountable.

Take the host of ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” a very bright guy who does better than most with Trump. But still falls way, way short. That was true Sunday morning in an interview that was taped the day after the Democratic National Convention.

George Step-Trump interview

To his credit, GS threw in some pointed follow-up questions. But not nearly enough I found when watching the interview and later picking through the transcript.

His missed opportunities were plentiful, a list as long as Trump’s Pinocchio-lying nose. Here are a few:

–When questioned about former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Trump-trashing speech at the Dem convention, Trump responded, “…I think he made a deal with Hillary where he gets a job because he’d like to— ’’

STOP!

GS should have interrupted and asked: Do you have evidence that Bloomberg agreed to speak in exchange for a job in the Clinton administration? If Trump obfuscated (who, him?) or didn’t answer, GS should not have continued until he did answer. But the clock was ticking, and he moved on.

–Trump all but accused Clinton of rigging the coming three televised Presidential debates so that two would air against highly popular NFL games, implying she was fearful of losing and wanted as few voters a possible to see her face Trump: “You know, Hillary wants to be against the NFL—”

STOP!

GS should have cut in and demanded that Trump cite his evidence. But he didn’t.

–When GS brought up the anti-Trump Dem convention speech of Khizr Kahn, whose Army captain son, Humayun, died in Iraq, Trump asked, “Who wrote that? Did Hillary’s script writer write it? Everybody—”

STOP!

GS should have asked Trump for evidence to support his message that someone in the Clinton camp had written Khizr Kahn’s heartfelt speech. But he didn’t, instead letting Trump ramble on and leave behind his usual dungy trail of nasty innuendo.

Trump appears to have a very limited vocabulary and little command of the language. But the one word he’ll understand is the one he never hears.

STOP!

AND NOW, FOR MY NEXT SCRIPTED AD LIB…

Let’s schmooze.

The tortuous cavalcade of presidential primary debates slogs on repetitively like a reality show with no limits—much as Bill Murray faces the same 24 hours again and again in “Groundhog Day.” As I write this, New Hampshire is hosting Real Candidates of Manchester whose GOP characters on ABC Saturday night hurled wild charges like kids splashing in a pool.

The debates feel Homeric, yet—is it possible?—the odyssey is only beginning.

An oft-stated argument for televised debates is that they rev up public interest and, above all, are irresistible draws. Uh-huh, so are auto wrecks.

Yes, I know, The Trumpet and his tidal-wave comb-over have been a three-ring hoot, and televised debates magnify, bulge out and widen it like the mirrors in a fun house. Most media, moreover, don’t merely adore the debates but swoon over them. Giddy is the word I’m looking for. And the multitudes watch the sniggering and swaggering in astonishing numbers. The range so far, say the Nielsen ratings: 24 million viewers in August for the first GOP candidate debate on Fox to 4.5 million MSNBC viewers for Thursday night’s hastily arranged Bernie and Hillary show.

Since the landmark Kennedy-Nixon clashes of 1960, TV debates have become the popular currency and Holy Grail of electioneering, as much a part of our culture as the Super Bowl (minus the clever commercials, sadly). Each debate is dusted off and examined microscopically as if it was treasure from an archeological dig.

Oh, sure!

Now look, I like science fiction as well as anyone, and televised debates can be an entertaining way to pass an evening in the Twilight Zone. I haven’t missed one, don’t plan to.

But time for a reality check.

Televised debates are the ultimate fantasies and one of the biggest redundancies of presidential campaigns. They reveal little beyond which candidates give the better performances in front of television cameras, after learning their lines as other actors do and practicing looking presidential: strength but warmth, brilliance yet plain folks, the insider’s knowledge without the insider’s mentality.  Yes, Bernie Sanders projects realness, but he, too, is a member of this stock company.

After each debate comes the show after the show, conveyor belts of media bullshit under the pretense of analysis and Machiavellian myth spinners pumping up their candidates.

In fact, televised debates mostly emphasize qualities that no thinking voter should desire in a president.

–They stress flashy TV skills over substance. It’s true that the nation’s medium of choice remains TV, apologies to the Internet. And a president who cannot communicate with the nation through TV is at least partially disabled. Not as severely, though, as a TV slick who turns out to be a dope in the Oval Office.

–They stress speedy answers. Candidates so thoroughly practice and cram like students for an exam that surprise questions are a rarity. Yet the candidate who does weigh a question thoughtfully before responding, a trait you’d want in a president, appears flustered, out of touch or just a little bit slow.

–They stress glibness and quick, agile wit (read rehearsed ad libs), the stuff of good TV but not necessarily good leadership.  Mr./Madam President, Kim Jong Un has hit South Korea and Japan with nuclear missiles. Got a joke about funny hair?

All of it is theater. So how fitting that the campaign trail’s media crowd includes the show-biz trade paper Variety spitting out live, minute-by-minute blogs of the debates. As in Thursday night:

“But her (Clinton’s) statement gives Sanders an opening to, once again, focus on the corrupting influence of money in politics…” And: “Clinton sees a weakness in Sanders foreign policy…”

What was this, Cam Newton vs. Peyton Manning? Bernie Sanders has said, “Democracy is not a spectator sport.” Perhaps, but it’s often covered like one.

As the nation’s first stand-up comic seriously campaigning for president, Donald Trump is the poster boy for klieg light candidates. He is the logical extension of an incestuous linkage of entertainment, news media and politics. In a broad sense, all work the same street.

Well before Trump sought to make Washington D.C. his zip code, presidential hopefuls began parachuting into late night TV for softball chats with the hosts and 15 minutes of no-fee exposure.  While Trump was reportedly blowing much of his fortune in 1992, Bill Clinton was blowing his sax on Arsenio Hall’s show. And most of the current crop of candidates have hit the late-night boards in search of free media and the public affection they hope comes with it.

Media members galore have historically traveled this road across an ever-widening celebrity journalistscape. Most notable today is Megyn Kelly, the Fox anchor who has parlayed Trump’s verbal abuse into abundance, earning a gig with giggly Jimmy Fallon on NBC and another on CBS with Stephen Colbert during Sunday’s post-Super Bowl show, to say nothing of a book deal with HarperCollins.

Call it an extended curtain call, journalism’s latest troubling metaphor for messengers becoming the message.  If not for these TV debates, she’d now be just another rising media star, largely obscure beyond Fox, and we’d be just as smart about the candidates of both parties.