If the expectations were any lower for Donald Trump in tonight’s debate, all he would have to do to be hailed as victor would be to refrain from grabbing his crotch to display the qualities Hillary lacks.
He could crawl on the floor, flick his forked tongue, and tempt Hillary with an apple, and the pundits would declare him charming and witty.
Meanwhile, Hermione Clinton–thanks Samantha Bee!–will be branded as a shrill smarty-pants outmaneuvered by a shrewd man of the people.
Exaggeration? Maybe, but not by much. The fact remains that the way the debate will be received will be shaped more by press perceptions than reality.
For the last few days, Keith and I have been watching some old presidential debates in preparation for the main event this evening. The most interesting was the very first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
As it’s usually painted, Tricky Dick lost because he looked sweaty, shifty-eyed, and ill at ease, while handsome and cool-as-a-cucumber Kennedy ran away with the debate thanks to the optics.
Those who saw the debate on television thought Kennedy won, yet people who heard it on the radio scored it for Nixon. Or so the legend goes.
But even by the time of the first Ford/Carter debate that consensus was beginning to fall apart. Still, there’s nothing like seeing it yourself to form your own judgment.Though we agreed that Kennedy won the debate, it seemed far closer than it’s usually portrayed. And we just didn’t agree that Nixon looked that bad.
Apparently. Nixon was getting over a cold and a knee infection. “Fire the makeup man,” Nixon aid Herb Klein said to a supporter. “Everybody in this part of the country thinks Nixon is sick.”
Yes, Nixon did seem more ill at ease (though not terribly so). But the debate simply didn’t appear to be a historic stylistic blowout, at least not to us.
And now that the misconceptions are beginning to be debunked, the myths about the debate have become firmly lodged even in the most politically aware minds.
The herd mentality of the press will shape the narrative until it becomes the truth. The immediate public reaction to the first Gore/Bush debate was that Gore won. Later, the press branded Gore’s exaggerated sighs as condescending. And that perception lives to this day.
The 1960 presidential election was the closest in US history. If the Nixon/Kennedy debate was so decisive, the election should’ve been a landslide.
We cannot afford a reassessment of the misjudgments of tonight’s debate fifty years from now. But lately there have been hopeful signs, as the press has begun throwing aside false equivalencies by calling a liar a liar, even in the headlines.
It would be the ultimate irony if Hillary Clinton lost to a pathological liar because the majority of voters thought she was the untrustworthy one.
Let the cage match commence. But the battle of perceptions will be waged even before the lights have dimmed.