Trump and Hillary confirmed who they are

Sadly and predictably, the debate was like so many Super Bowls — boring until the last minutes. It was acrimony and sarcasm without much new to anyone following the campaigns.

Oct 7, 2016 at 11:47 am

When the presidential debate started Monday night, it was as satisfying as a Super Bowl kickoff. We were ready. Americans had endured weeks of blather, speculation and faux expertise anticipating the big event.

Network panelists continued the hype into the final minutes before the debate, arguing what Trump and Hillary must do to win. We even got a parade of spouses and children. All that was missing was the CNN coin toss on stage to decide who got the first question.

At least it was the end of the hype… just like kickoff. Finally, we’d know whether the action would match the sturm und drang propagated by the news media, talk radio, internet sites and social media.

Unlike a football game, it’s up to viewers who won. My guess is each candidate’s core supporters were jubilant. Pollsters will give us an idea if any minds were changed.

At a minimum, Trump and Hillary confirmed our sense of who they are. Forget Mars and Venus. He’s Narcissus from New York, she’s Pollyana from the Midwest.

Early on, Trump blamed Hillary for so many national and international ills that she responded, “I have a feeling that by the end of this evening, I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened.”

“Why not?” Trump shot back.

“Why not? Yeah, why not,” Hillary replied. “You know, just join the debate by saying more crazy things.”

Sadly and predictably, the debate was like so many Super Bowls — boring until the last minutes. It was acrimony and sarcasm without much new to anyone following the campaigns.

Hillary’s game plan was evident: draw on decades of experience, be forceful, pleasant and fact-rich without appearing wonky. Answer questions asked and don’t toss anything at Trump that she couldn’t prove.

Hillary conceded personal errors but embraced national problems with American can-do spirit.

Trump was Trump, butting in whenever he liked and saying what he wanted to say, regardless of what he was asked. Trump was relatively controlled, but his characteristically over-broad assertions — often blaming Hillary’s decades of experience — invited fact-based challenges.

Trump faulted Hillary for trade treaties, the treaty that interrupted Iran’s nuclear weapon program and for the birth of ISIS. Other times, he went off-message and repeated dystopian claims about crime, illegal immigrants, unemployment and a general national malaise that opened him to new factual challenges.

My favorite line was, “Donald, I know you live in your own reality.”

More than once, Trump denied statements with which Hillary and moderator NBC anchor Lester Holt confronted him. The New York Times counted at least 19 of these moments. In the same way, the split screen wasn’t kind to Trump: he grimaced, fidgeted with the mic and often appeared impatient.

Holt did a yeoman job. He wisely and rarely butted in. He let the candidates battle, choosing not to be the third dog in their fight. Holt’s most obvious intervention was when he used a Trump quote to refute Trump’s assertion that he’d never supported the Iraq war.

Mainstream media lies, insisted Trump, repeating familiar attacks on The New York Times and wondering why reporters won’t ask Fox News’ Sean Hannity about Trump’s opposition to the Iraq war.

More than once, Trump responded to Hillary’s criticism by saying, “That’s business” or “good business” as if bankruptcies, stiffing myriad subcontractors or being sued for housing discrimination should be admired as the American Way of Life. Throughout, Trump’s underlying message was personal self-interest and profits as the yardsticks against which he measures his life and the value of America’s promises: trade agreements, NATO and other defense treaties, etc.

Everything is open to the art of the deal and he’s the artist; it’s smart to avoid paying federal income taxes and to using laws abroad to avoid taxes there. As another New Yorker, hotel magnate Leona Helmsley, famously said, “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”

Their last exchanges were among the most interesting. Holt asked about sexism and racism. Hillary quoted Trump’s denigration of women and he took the bait. However, instead of drawing explicit attention to her gender, he drew on internet conspiracies about Hillary’s health and “stamina.”

Again, he played into Hillary’s strength; she didn’t have to play the gender card:

“As soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a cease-fire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina,” she said.

Hillary raised Trump’s championing the birther challenge to the legitimacy of our first black president. As he does so often, Trump neither admitted error nor apologized, blaming Hillary’s aides in 2008 for first raising doubts about Obama’s birthplace.

Trump ignored Hillary’s accusation that he promoted that “racist lie” for years, claiming instead that he was responsible for Obama releasing his birth certificate.

Pundits credit Trump’s embrace of the birther conspiracy for his rise in Republican politics, playing to white, angry Christian GOP voters. Only recently, Trump accepted Obama’s eligibility for the presidency.

The Hofstra University audience held its collective tongue until the exchanges over sexism and race, erupting with boos after Trump’s assertions and responses.

Hillary didn’t let go. She accused Trump of “a long record of engaging in racist behavior.”

As for sexism, Hillary recalled Trump’s insults to women. “This is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs, and someone who has said pregnancy is an inconvenience to employers, who has said women don’t deserve equal pay unless they do as good a job as men,” she said.

In one case, she said, he called a beauty pageant contestant “Miss Piggy. Then he called her Miss Housekeeping, because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name.”

In their last minutes, Hillary said she’d accept the decision of the voters without hesitation.

Trump grudgingly agreed to support the election result if Hillary won.

Trump knows how to game a system. He, his supporters, the news media and commentators set the bar so low that anything short of verbal disaster would be triumph. By that standard, he didn’t screw up Monday night and backers should have been delighted.

Trump also did his best to intimidate Holt in the days before the debate. As the news media noted, Trump could not resist another self-serving lie: The debate was rigged — Holt was a Democrat!

Wrong again. Holt’s a registered Republican.

Curmudgeon Notes:

• I was hoping The Enquirer would join other papers who refuse to endorse a presidential candidate. The Clinton-Trump race is a perfect opportunity. No daily has the authoritative voice it had before TV let us see and hear candidates. Endorsements rarely change minds. To campaigns, their value is to confirm voters' earlier choices. If The Enquirer endorsement gets attention, it will be mainly because the paper endorsed a Democrat for the first time since Woodrow Wilson. Big deal. Its main value is to make the editorial board feel useful.

• What’s more delicious than a culinary tour of Findlay Market? Irony. News media echoed the assurance that the costly streetcar would be a bonus for Findlay Market. Well, the streetcar is proving to be more of a curse. Dim bulbs among local journalists and TV news readers suggested that Findlay Market’s modest parking fees would be perfect for people who want to park and ride the streetcar. OctoberFest weekend, that’s what lots of people did with the predictable result: reduced or no parking for Findlay Market customers. The lots were full, but market crowds were thin. It was a repeat of the free weekend rides offered on the streetcar. Vendors I know were furious with the news media.

• It’s a perennial problem at the University of Cincinnati's The News Record. Student journalists don’t know where they are. Maybe a one-day orientation — including reading street signs that say “Clifton” or “Clifton Heights” — should be included. A recent Page 1 screamed the news that crime was down in “Clifton.” Good news if true. However, the story said “Clifton Heights.” Can’t be both. Worse, they’re separated by the Lost Colony of “University Heights” where the News Record office can be found.

• Journalists are notoriously lousy at percentages. Stories, captions, cutlines under photos and graphics fare poorly. Recently, a photo illustrating an Enquirer letter to the editor said fentanyl is “50 to 100 percent” more powerful than heroin. Big deal. And wrong. It’s 50 to 100 times as powerful . That’s why it’s a killer. Sometimes I wonder whether people writing or editing those opinion pages read the paper or check clips.

• Here’s a new guessing game at The Enquirer: who’ll be the first publisher/editor, thus combining both functions and saving a bundle in executive salary. Gannett is doing it everywhere. Before he left recently, veteran journalist Rick Green set a high standard in the publisher’s role. I’d bet Gannett’s choice to fill the combined role will be a careerist from the advertising/business side. I fear that they’ll return the paper to its traditional deference to advertisers and the business community.

• The Economist recently looked at drug pricing and found this gem about Mylan, the price-gouging maker of the EpiPen with its life-saving generic drug, epinephrine: Mylan’s chief executive, Heather Bresch, heads the generic-drugs lobby and is the daughter of an American senator. Epinephrine is so old that it is a generic. 

Wait! It gets better. You want “rigged?” Mylan is perfect. The Enquirer carried a USAToday story that Mylan CEO Heather Bresch also is the daughter of Gayle Manchin, head of the National Association of State Boards of Education. USAToday said Manchin “spearheaded an unprecedented effort that encouraged states to require schools to purchase medical devices that fight life-threatening allergic reactions.”

So how do you spell RELIEF? EpiPen with its wonderfully short shelf life.

• A letter to the Economist underlines the toxicity of sloppy word choice. Karen McNeil, revising editor of the Oxford Arabic Dictionary, took the British news weekly to task for a story about the French furor over Muslim women wearing a modest swim suit misnamed “burkini.” She wrote: 

“A ‘burkini’ is not ‘a cross between a burqa and a swimsuit.’ Although the word is a portmanteau of ‘burqa’ and ‘bikini,’ the item itself is not. It is simply a swimsuit, albeit a modest one, and has nothing to do with a burqa. Rather, it is associated with the hijab. A woman who wears the hijab covers her hair and body in public, and so would not show her arms, legs and chest on the beach. Obviously, a substantial portion of Muslim women wear the hijab, whereas only a tiny minority wear a burqa or cover their faces.

‘Burkini' is English and does not come from Arabic. This kind of clothing is referred to natively as maayo muhtashim (modest swimsuit) or malaabis al-bahr al-muhtashim (modest beach clothes). The term ‘burkini’ has started to appear also in Arabic news sources, but the spelling and the fact that it is often written in quotes mark it clearly as a borrowing from English.”

• Donald Trump is old and fat. Hillary Clinton is old and has blood clot problems. Neither obesity nor clots appear to be disabling if their physicians can be trusted. I won’t even get into Trump using dreadful Dr. Oz as a shill or Hillary’s failing candor after stumbling away from New York’s 9/11 memorial ceremony.

We’ve had presidents with disabling illnesses in the past, but reporters and their editors censored themselves and conspired to keep the public ignorant of the problems.

It’s a lot harder today, not just because the news media have changed. Supposedly loyal associates achieve 15 minutes of fame with dramatic revelations about presidential health/illness. Here’s a short history of modern presidential misery:

Americans didn’t appreciate Woodrow Wilson’s incapacity after a 1919 stroke or the powerful role his wife, Edith, assumed in his place for more than a year. 

Even if photographers brought in images of Roosevelt in his wheelchair or using crutches, editors spiked them; his legs were weakened in 1921 by what was diagnosed then as polio. That, in part, is why there was a fuss recently when a statue of FDR showed him in his wheelchair.

In 1955, Dwight D. Eisenhower had a heart attack, but unlike predecessors, he told Americans what was wrong. A year later, he developed bowel blockage and required surgery. He returned to work within a week. Assured he was strong enough to seek re-election, he was quoted in a private conversation, saying, he hoped his physicians "knew what they were talking about since the job of being president could not be performed by anyone who was not in good condition.” Ike served out his second term despite repeated heart attacks and cardiac arrests.

JFK was in rough shape before and during his almost three years in office. In 2002, the NYTimes reported that Kennedy suffered from more ailments, was in far greater pain and was taking many more medications than the public knew or biographers have since described. JFK was “famous for having a bad back, and since his death, biographers have pieced together details of other illnesses, including persistent digestive problems and Addison's disease, a life-threatening lack of adrenal function. But newly disclosed medical files covering the last eight years of Kennedy's life, including X-rays and prescription records, show that he took painkillers, anti-anxiety agents, stimulants and sleeping pills, as well as hormones to keep him alive, with extra doses in times of stress. At times the president took as many as eight medications a day . . . "

Reagan came to office with moderate hearing loss. During his two terms, he recovered from colon surgery and the gunshot wound caused by the 1981 assassination attempt by John Hinckley. More noteworthy was his brief transfer of power to Vice President Bush without explicitly invoking the 25th Amendment, which governs that kind of situation. Whether he also was coping with the onset of dementia never has been clear.

George W. Bush denied being an alcoholic, but he and his wife make no secret of his heavy drinking as a younger man. He gave it up before running for president.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]