So much anticipation, so little satisfaction. So much hype, so little substance. The first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was advertised as a championship fight between two eager brawlers. Both were expected to find the other's weak spot, hammer away, punch, counterpunch and finally knock the other out.
But this was no Rumble in the Jungle — when Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman with a dazzling knockout. It wasn't even a Thrilla in Manila, where The Greatest won by a TKO over Joe Frazier. But there were a lot of disappointed political fans, who thought they were going to a fight and got a debate between two high school seniors.
There was the perky girl, the brightest in the class, who would never win a popularity contest but could rattle off memorized facts and figures to show herself as the class grind. Everyone knew she was on her way to an elite college in leafy New England, to begin a climb that would lead to Washington, as foolish as such a dream might have been in those benighted days, when women aspired to the Mrs. degree — no graduate school needed.
Against her was the teenager drawing attention with a smart-aleck wit, shunning grin and intellectual insight. He would get all the laughs by reducing the grind to the butt of jokes. He was on his way to a business degree and the big bucks. No one would have guessed that one of them would grow up to make a lot of money and give some of it away, and the other would grow up to give away a lot of other people's money and take credit for it.
But the debaters this week were not really teenagers, despite more flashes of adolescent awkwardness than moments of polished maturity. They were presidential candidates, speaking to eager audiences drawn from every corner of the country. One was colorful and entertaining, the other grim and determined — both living up to their teenage promise. One offers ideas with belligerent, half-baked flair, the other well-researched snark.
The split-screen close-ups showed them both as unkind and ungenerous. Neither grew more likable as the debate descended deeper into the night, the camera's headshots searching for clue and insight, as if reaction was more important than action. But neither Trump's sniffles, which could be blamed on coming down with a cold (he said it was a defective microphone) nor Clinton's strained gaze, which she gave as if she had to prove she was bright-eyed and cough-free, detracted from the colliding fact and fib on the screen.
He didn't look at his watch, as George H. W. Bush did during a debate with Bill Clinton. But the Donald looked as if he were wishing it were over. It might have been better for him if it had been. He landed early punches about trade and the economy, which were largely unanswered. He was playing nice, no doubt having been coached to go against type. She was the nasty one, especially at the end, when she repeated his infamous put-downs of women he called by name. He was having none of that this time. He was magnanimous in the moment, turning the other cheek and resisting the bully's temptation to retaliate with a cruel but telling comment. This was not a fight for a counterpuncher.
The Donald will never be the debater that Clinton invariably shows herself to be. She speaks in polished sentences that always sound practiced; he speaks in disjointed sentences with lots of dashes and exclamation points. But presidential debates are not debates at all but rather talking points writ large. This can sometimes frame the larger issues, where he does better. The first 30 minutes on Monday night were about the subjects he knows best: trade and jobs.
She catalogued policy particulars, and he trumped with the big themes, the biggest of all being his rejection of the status quo. He wants to shake things up, and she's out to keep things pretty much as they are, in a year when "it's the status quo, stupid." Trump's best retort on a night without a memorable line was his rebuke of her promise to create jobs and prosperity: "She's been doing this for 30 years. And why hasn't she made the agreements better?" She's the insider who's comfortable in the status quo; he's the outsider eager to get in. And his followers see him as the outsider who can change how Washington works. Her reputation as a woman loose with the truth inspires no confidence. Neither does his bluster and rough talk. The debate did not change those perceptions. In ancient history, the suspicion of public figures was fear that eloquence would hide attempts to manipulate, that fluent speech would camouflage character. There was nothing to fear this week.