Many have tried to describe the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Adjectives have failed, pejoratives have prevailed and analysis has fallen tragically short of capturing what happened Tuesday night. Sometimes when it becomes impossible to describe what something is, it is easier to outline what it is not.
During and after the debate, my text messages lit up with comments and questions from colleagues, friends and sources around the country. Beyond the easy “hot mess,” “dumpster fire” and “train wreck,” most of the people I spoke with didn’t know what to say.
So, let’s begin with an understanding of what this event, billed as a presidential debate, was not and what wasn’t on display in an important contest to become the leader of the free world.
One colleague noted, “There was not a hint of accountability, empathy, humility, vision or influence. Not to mention integrity or respect.” That may be the perfect nondescription. The night lacked so many significant elements that it might have actually created a black hole in our national galaxy.
This was not a display of statesmanship. There wasn’t even a hint of leadership in the room.
Steve Jobs once described what leadership looks like when he said, “Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could.”
The American people are starving for a leader to inspire them to do things they never thought they could. No one who watched the contest came away feeling so inspired.
There was neither wit nor wisdom. Not a single uplifting, memorable quote to raise the sights of citizens, restore hope or offer a clarion call to come together in unity.
No light-hearted camaraderie that makes American politics tolerable or memorable. No one even attempted the proper deployment of humor to diffuse the intense angst and anger on display. No Reagan-Mondale quip about age. Not even a poignant Bentsen-Quayle exchange in a comparison to Kennedy. No one could even summon a moment of silence like George W. Bush’s pause, smirk and nod at Al Gore when Gore invaded his personal space.
There wasn’t a snowball’s chance in that hot mess dumpster fire for any exchanges about policy or philosophical differences or a vision of the future of the nation because there was no oxygen. Contempt, ego and hubris consumed time and space and left the American people with nothing.
I had hoped the format and a single moderator would lead to better discussion and second and third level questions, which is where enlightening dialogue actually happens. Nope. Nothing. Zip. Not a chance. A lack of listening and restraint compounded all what wasn’t.
Meaningful topics were raised by moderator Chris Wallace. However, in the absence of everything else, none came to fruition. This wasn’t a “finest hour” moment for politics, politicians or the citizens of the nation.
Many thought this debate would have been a chance to have elevated dialogue and spirited discussion in the midst of a pandemic, economic recession and civil unrest. It could have been a moment where voters learned how these candidates think, what guides their decisions and what they would deliver for hardworking citizens. It should have been an opportunity to show the world how our republic goes about choosing a leader.
Would have, could have, should have — but it wasn’t.
Above all it wasn’t becoming of the office of the American presidency and absolutely lacked respect and reverence for the American people and all who have sacrificed to protect and secure freedom for more than 230 years.
Presidents, politicians and other elected officials bear immense responsibility for setting the tone and tenor for the conversations in the country. But they don’t own those conversations — the American people do. To blame a president for the lack of civility, compassion, integrity or respect in the country absolves citizens of their responsibility. This didn’t start in 2016, nor will end with a different occupant in the White House. This is a “we the people” issue.
Two more rounds of presidential debates are ahead. But for now, round one is over — no winner, and 320 million Americans lost.
What can we the people do? Reject it. Stop responding to fear-mongering emails asking for donations. Stop making contempt-filled posts on social media. Stop feeling compelled to respond to the contempt-filled posts of others. Stop attacking those with whom you disagree. Stop making excuses when your friends, elected officials or people you support do inexcusable things. Stop trolling. If we decide to reject what has become accepted behavior, we will eliminate all that wasn’t on Tuesday night.
This debate should be remembered — or more fittingly, forgotten — for all that it wasn’t.
The American people are the only ones who can demand better and expect more of what a debate is. Only we the people can create a more perfect union for what is and what could yet be the United States of America.