• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Review: Presidential Debate

October 2020

He who suffers by excess and finds pain in abundance is wise in seeking, as the only remedy by which he might be repaired, brevity and moderation. These are the humble antidotes after all, upon which future good health depends, the urgent prescriptions by which a state of well-being and balance might be restored. As nature demands, and as prudence permits, an austerity of needs—with their quiet joy in simplicity and their emphasis on poise—replace that surfeit of wants by which a sagging soul is further weighed down.

In having witnessed last evening’s presidential debate, I feel—along with so many others with whom I’ve had the opportunity to speak—the terrible weight of that obnoxious affair. When asked, most reject out of hand the possibility that it was in any way beneficial. Frankly, they despair at having invested so much of their precious time in its ninety long minutes of interruption, bickering, and noise. All feel themselves to have sunk ever deeper into the depths of insalubrity and mean-spiritedness. All now despise, if they didn’t before, the muck of our modern-day politics, a fetid swamp of ugliness through which we’re daily forced to wade.

I think it safe to conclude, then, that we’ve all suffered by the excess of the language of the debate’s participants, by the deficiency of their combined intelligence, by the vanity of their empty boasts, by the mendacity of their questionable claims, by the insipidity of their endless promises, by the pugnacity of their “tough-guy” veneers, and by the abundance of their ad hominem filth, of which, despite multiple showers, our poor and abused ears simply can’t be washed.

It’s for this reason that I’ll attempt, with as much brevity as possible, and as much moderation as I can command, a short synopsis of each participants’ performance. So painful has been our suffering at the hands of abundance and excess, that concision and refinement, I think, are what we need most. To provide them, I’ll offer but one line, a mere sentence, by which each participant—be he Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Chris Wallace, and the night as a whole—might be captured. I’ll then expand on that single thought, but only briefly, for this isn’t a topic, and these aren’t the types of men, upon which and whom I’d very much care to enlarge.

The event, taken in its entirety, can be summed up in the following word—unedifying. Had they been thirsty, the parched needs of our decorum, having submerged themselves in this debate, wouldn’t have been slaked. While they’ve grown accustomed to the barren and mean environment of our political world, they would’ve watched the juvenile behavior of these old men and found in their morals no oasis from which to drink. Indeed, any hint of morality, and any drop decency, would seem to the desperate traveler as if it were a fleeting mirage.

There was nothing about this debate that was remotely instructive, be it in a moral, political, or intellectual way. It was discouraging from the first to the last. There was nothing tactful, pleasant, graceful, or elevated—the types of displays upon which we’d urge our children to model their own conduct. All, rather, was sordid, ugly, and low—manners from which we’d shield a younger generation’s eyes.

President Trump, in a word, was detestably combative. He was, on this evening (as he’s been on so many before) a true paragon of petulance and a lover of the fight. He appeared to be unable to detach himself from that style of belligerence on which, as we’ve been told time and again, his many business successes were once dependent. While not much inclined toward confrontation, we’re continually assured, he’ll never ignore the opportunity for a counter-punch. He never initiates, but only responds.

His display last evening put into doubt that tired maxim. He seemed only too eager to incite attacks, to throw haymakers, and never to retire them, once discharged. Unfortunately, this style of fighting for its own sake is neither as enticing nor profitable when performed by a head of state, as it is by a real estate magnate. It may work for a celebrity builder in the heart of Manhattan, but it’s unbecoming of a country’s representative living in the federal home of D.C. The recognition of this fact may come to him too late, as it might cost him very dearly at the polls.

He was peremptory to the point of exhaustion, and ill-tempered to the point of reproach. His behavior was boorish and his interruptions, gratuitous. He looked as if a carpenter in possession of but one tool—a hammer, of which he made relentless and blind use. Every sound repartee, every thoughtful remark, was drowned out beneath the noise of his constant banging. He might’ve accoutered himself with better instruments, dressed himself in subtler arguments, and adorned his body with the look, at least, of a gracious personality by which none might be repulsed. Instead, he beat into submission not only his opponent and his moderator, but every member of the audience upon whose suffrage his future political career relies.

Joe Biden, in a word, was surprisingly cogent, if not convincingly so. The hurdle over which he had to drag himself, which the Trump campaign unwisely rolled out, was that of a man in control of his faculties. He had merely to display that he was at least somewhat compos mentis, and not yet victim to the thievery of senility and the demands of old age. An admittedly low standard by which to measure a man, let alone a potential head of state, it can’t be said that Biden failed to clear it. To the surprise of many, he did, seemingly with the feeble wires of his neural circuitry still intact.

His claims were contradictory (at once agreeing with the brilliance of the Green Deal, and then undercutting its feasibility); his evasions invidious (not only did he avoid condemning the terrorists of Antifa and Black Lives Matter, but he negated their very existence); his personal attacks foul and intemperate (he called the president of the United States both a “clown” and a “racist”), but he displayed, at the very least, a modicum of self-possession. He was caught at no point entirely analphabetic—as though just recently acquainted with the English tongue. Never was he suspected of having some kind of aphasiac episode, nor did he appear lost in a world destitute of words. On the whole, he appeared literate and alive, if not eloquent and vivacious. That said, he needed not to speak well, but to speak intelligibly, and, by and large, he did.

He was able to keep his comments relatively short, to whose enforced brevity, President Trump’s interruptions contributed in no small way. Better would it have been for the latter to have permitted the former to speak, for Biden’s words often betray his thoughts. When they do, they usually benefit his opponent. Trump, however, was unable to avail himself of the peculiarity of this uniquely “Bidenian” trait. He simply couldn’t bring himself to step back in silence, which might’ve opened the way for a death by verbal suicide to occur.

Chris Wallace, in a word, was understandably vexed. His exasperation, I think, was shared by all. Largely, this was a consequence of the misbehavior of the president, upon whom he failed to place any reasonable restraints, but his frustrations might’ve been just the same had the president been tamer.

That said, though, not all of his frustrations can be attributable to Trump; he invited many upon himself. His questions were rather broad and contentious, than sharp and discriminating. His topics were often lazily considered and incompletely pursued. He didn’t tailor his questions properly for the men from whom answers were to be extracted, and he was far from unbiased. His eagerness to fire salvoes of “follow-ups” at President Trump wasn’t matched in his gentler treatment of Joe Biden. He cut short many of the inquiries pressed to the latter, which gave him ample time to prosecute the former.

Failing as a moderator, he decided to insert himself as a debater. In the adoption of this transmogrified state, he abandoned any vestige of impartiality. In doing so, he joined what’s become a large and growing company in the journalistic field. He distanced himself from that calm and disinterested state with which his name was once associated. He stripped himself of that rare epithet, “consummate professional”, and donned the cheap attire of a partisan hack. He became, quite shamelessly, and right there before our eyes, an open advocate for the left. It was a move, frankly, about which centrists are lamenting and progressives celebrating.

Perhaps, in asking for brevity and moderation, I ask for too much. Maybe just one will do. We’ll see if the next debate can make use of either. For what it’s worth, this is my brief, and hopefully moderate review of a disgraceful debate.

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