Debate fallout: Does frailty and truth beat demagoguery and lies?

July 2nd, 2024 by Tom Lynch

Robert Anderson’s 1968 play I Never Sang For My Father tells the story of a widowed college professor who feels dominated by his aging father, yet still has regrets about his plan to leave him behind when he remarries and moves to California. He and his father have a tortured relationship.

When I was a young man in my 30s, a highly-respected community theatre company, in a moment of insanity, cast me to play the father, someone about 40 years older than I was at the time. For inspiration, I could have watched the movie starring Melvyn Douglas as the father (for which he won the 1971 Academy Award for best actor), but, instead, I watched my grandfather, who was the right age. I noticed his steps were slow and rather short. His arms swung little as he walked. He talked in a wispy sort of voice, not at all resonant. But, at the same time, he had all his wits and, a retired Chief of Police for a good sized city, he was also chairman of the local draft board where every Monday night he and a group of other older men would meet to determine the fate of younger men. It was the Vietnam era.

Last Thursday, as I watched Joe Biden take the stage in his debate with Donald Trump, I thought of my grandfather. Same short, slow-step  walk, same small arm swing, same wispy voice. But there was a difference — President Joe Biden seemed inarticulate, and even incoherent at times. He got better as the debate went on, but the first 45 minutes were catastrophic. Even painful.

About 15 feet away from him stood 78-year-old Donald Trump, a picture of brutal, domineering  vigor. The contrast was astonishing. After the debate, Biden’s team, the surrogates whose job it had been to polish the presidential apple after he had laid waste to I’ll-be-dictator-for-a-day Trump, left after 40 minutes. Trump’s team would still be there if CNN, the host of the debate, had let them.

It only took minutes after the debate for the world’s punditry to lower the boom. Nick Kristof scooped them all when his column went up four-and-a-half minutes after the two combatants left the stage. He resolutely urged Biden to drop out of the race — now. That started the avalanche. Two of Biden’s “friends,” Maureen Dowd and Tom Friedman, waxing eloquent about what a good and decent man Joe Biden is, and what a great president he’s been, called in no uncertain terms for him to fold his tent and leave the battle. That must have hurt. Then came the editorial boards of both the Washington Post and the New York Times. In fact, by early the next morning, it was impossible to find anyone in Pundit world who hadn’t written about what a disaster the night had been and hadn’t strongly urged Biden to quit the field.

Biden had such a rough night, his opponent, the “I will be your retribution” Maga Man in Chief, got off Scott free. This, despite his Gatling gun torrent of lies. With CNN and its moderators having decided their job was to ask questions, not challenge those lies, it took a full day before any fact checking actually happened, just long enough for nobody to notice.

But just for the record, Trump lied about the economy during his presidency, claiming he created “the best economy in history,” when in fact he created 1.2 million fewer new jobs in his first three years than Barack Obama did in his final three years. He lied about veterans care, saying he passed the Veterans Choice act — when that measure passed under Obama in 2014. Trump claimed crime is skyrocketing, murder in particular, when, in fact, crime peaked in Trump’s final year in the White House and has been declining ever since.  The homicide rate is at one of its lowest points in decades, and immigrants, the people Trump loves to demean as “vermin and rapists,” overall, are less prone to commit crimes than native-born U.S. citizens. And this is true all over America, especially in the big, blue cities Trump constantly excoriates. Trump insisted he had done nothing wrong in his handling of the violent Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol. He even repeated his same old abortion lies, saying, “Everybody, without exception ― Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives ― everybody wanted” to overturn Roe v. Wade, and he invented an outrageous claim about Democrats pushing abortion “in the ninth month and even after birth.”  You would think something that outrageous would have gotten some kind of pushback from moderators Jake Tapper or Dana Bash. It did not.

If you read the transcript, and I realize few will, you see all of Biden’s problems, but, more important, you see his strengths and Trump’s craziness. The transcript provides a very different picture of Biden. Substantively, he ably and forcefully made the case that Trump should not be allowed back in the Oval Office.

If we examine the transcript, we see that Biden, despite his vocal problems and his occasional stammering, landed solid blows. The trouble is that his successes came in the second half of the debate when many had tuned out. But let’s look at it anyway.

On his age: “I spent half my career being criticized being the youngest person in politics. I was the second-youngest person ever elected to the United States Senate. And now I’m the oldest. This guy’s three years younger and a lot less competent. I think that just look at the record. Look what I’ve done. Look how I’ve turned around the horrible situation he left me.”

On Trump’s character: “He is legally and morally compromised. He is a convicted felon, and had sex with an adult movie actress while his wife was pregnant. He accosted E. Jean Carroll in a department store dressing room. It is no answer that Hunter Biden is also a convicted felon. Hunter Biden is not running for president.”

On Trump’s place in history: “Historians rate Trump the worst president in our 230-year history.”

On NATO: “He wants to get out of NATO. You’re going to stay in NATO or you’re going to pull out of NATO? Our strength lies in our alliances.”

On the Big Lie: “You’re a whiner. When you lost the first time, you continued to appeal and appeal to courts all across the country. Not one single court in America said any of your claims had any merit, state or local, none … if you lose again, you can’t stand the loss. Something snapped in you when you lost the last time.”

There is so much more the transcript reveals that television never could, because we were so distracted by Biden’s apparent frailty.

If you do read the transcript, don’t stop there. Read, if you can stand it, the 900+ page Project 2025, the Heritage Foundation’s Presidential Transition Project, which lays out in stark relief what a second Trump presidency would be like. But if you like a bit of humor with your authoritarian dogma, watch John Oliver summarize the whole thing, and every word is true.

So far, Joe Biden has steadfastly refused to leave the race. He, his family, and his advisors have circled the wagons and seem determined to remain, fighting all the way to November. However, although polls have yet to show Biden’s debate debacle has affected voters’ views, he is still behind. And, lest we forget, there is another debate scheduled for Tuesday, 10 September. If Biden is still in the race, faltering there would probably guarantee a Trump win. The debate will be hosted by ABC. It would be nice if the moderators and ABC decided to hold the participants to a higher standard of truthfulness.

But that might be too much to ask.