You can fairly say that the first presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday night was historic television — historically bad television, a smoking crater of absurdity that played like the reality TV show life seemingly has become.
“That was a hot mess inside a dumpster fire inside a train wreck,” CNN’s Jake Tapper said once it was over. “That was the worst debate I have ever seen. It wasn’t even a debate. It was a disgrace, and it’s primarily because of President Trump.”
Liberal media bias? Not if you watched.
Trump repeatedly — by which I mean almost constantly — interrupted Biden and the moderator, Fox News’ Chris Wallace. It got to the point that it seemed strange when Trump didn’t interrupt.
Fox News' Chris Wallace lost control almost immediately
“You wonder who won, who lost — we’re going to have a lot of analysis over the next few minutes,” Bret Baier said on Fox News. “But you wonder if America maybe lost on the substance of the heart of the issues and whether they really got to them over some of that back and forth.”
No one who saw the debate wondered. Everyone who saw it knows: They didn’t get to the issues. It was a schoolyard slap fight with a bully having his way with the playground. There is no question that Americans lost, and lost big.
Dana Bash, also on CNN, put it more succinctly.
“It was a (expletive) show,” she said. (She’s on cable, Bash noted. She can say that.)
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At the center of it was Wallace, a strong interviewer who didn’t let Trump stand on lies and misleading statements in an earlier interview.
On Tuesday night, Trump mowed him over.
“Why don’t you observe what your campaign agreed to as a ground rule, OK, sir?” Wallace asked Trump late in the debate, as the president again interrupted.
“He never keeps his word,” Biden said.
“That was a rhetorical question,” Wallace said.
It was also a ridiculous one to even have to ask. Clearly Trump’s strategy was to talk and talk and talk, daring Wallace or Biden to stop him, goading Biden to get a rise out of him. And in that regard, it worked.
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Yes, Trump shouted out white supremacists
“Will you shut up, man?” Biden finally said at one point, delivering what is almost certain to be the most-quoted line of the night.
It shouldn’t be. On the actual news front, Wallace asked Trump if he would tell white supremacist and militia groups to stand down — something Trump has been criticized for not doing. He didn’t do that on Tuesday, either.
Instead, he said this: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by. But I’ll tell you what, somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left because this isn’t a right wing-problem. This is a left-wing problem.”
During anything approaching a normal debate, this would be stop-the-presses news, just jaw-dropping stuff. Tuesday night, it was another log on the chaotic fire. Amazingly, Wallace didn’t bother to ask a follow-up question.
This is what the debate was like. This is where we are. And no one — not even a respected journalist like Wallace with a track record for fairness — seems to be able to do anything about it.
Why the debate was a complete failure
Presidential debates don’t have to be great television. They don’t have to be interesting television. They should be informative television, and this was not. It was a pointless exercise in which we learned next to nothing about the candidates that we didn’t already know. Which draws into question whether there should be a second and a third debate.
It’s simple: not unless the moderator has the ability to cut the candidates’ microphones.
Because that’s the only way to stop the fusillade of interruptions from Trump.
Wallace made a point of saying it wasn’t his job to fact check during the debate. Maybe not, but it is his job to keep some semblance of control. That said, unless he walked up on stage and ripped the microphone from the lectern, what could he do, other than stop the proceedings completely?
A repeat of Tuesday night’s debacle wouldn’t just be bad TV. It would be irresponsible TV.
“You know, if you want to switch seats, we can do that,” Wallace told Trump during yet another interruption.
Why not? The result would have been the same.
At one point, one of my daughters walked in and started watching. She will vote for the first time this year. What was she supposed to think? For all she knows, this is normal.
For all I know, this is what normal has become. That would be the greatest shame of it all.
Reach Goodykoontz at firstname.lastname@example.org. Facebook: facebook.com/GoodyOnFilm. Twitter: @goodyk.