Often, first impressions are the best impressions. When recalling the historic presidential debate Monday night, the prevailing sense was of the starkest of contrasts between a civil, highly knowledgeable and fearless woman, and a snarling, pouting, disrespectful stupid old white male.
It was visual, it was visceral, and despite all the dissembling, lies and spins of the following days, the obvious was the obvious, and among the 100 million or so viewers (84 watching on TV, the rest elsewhere), the first poll to be reported on CNN was undoubtedly spot on: 62 percent saw Hillary Clinton as superior to the baboon Donald Trump, who only 27 percent favored.
That first poll also revealed that a full 25 percent of its sample said the debate had the effect of changing their vote. Well, 25 percent of 100 million is 25 million.
That’s a lot of people who were switched by the debate from voting for one to voting for the other candidate, and since almost two thirds preferred Clinton, the debate was an absolute catastrophe for Trump.
First, CNN tried to characterize the 25 percent as “only 25 percent.” What a laugh. But quickly, that poll result was buried and never repeated. The level of devastation that result spelled for Trump was apparently too much for someone.
One could dissect the debate piece by piece, but it’s the big picture, the overall impression that matters most. Like Nixon’s five o’clock shadow in his debate with Kennedy. It’s what sticks. Like Reagan’s hilarious one liner challenging Mondale’s youth and inexperience in 1984.
And maybe the most famous of all, Lloyd Bentsen’s rejoinder to Dan Quayle in the vice presidential debate of 1988. When Quayle alluded to his similarity to the late president John Kennedy, Bentsen slowly twisted in a dagger, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
The only thing uncertain now is which of the things out of this week’s debate will eventually be the most memorable. Will it be the more than 50 times that Trump interrupted Clinton? Will it be his quip that avoiding tax made him “smart?” (That would be at the top of my list). Or will it just be the broad strokes, a morality play pitting the all too obvious slimy Simon Legree against the strident Lady in Red.
That’s how this election is playing out. Once all the efforts spent trying to drag Clinton through the mud since the earliest days of Bill Clinton’s first term, all the efforts subtle and not too subtle to throw every misogynistic smear, an unfiltered Hillary Clinton has been able to dust herself off and present herself as who she actually is. And the result is that she’s little short of extraordinary, far better than a lesser of evils.
That this human being could become the first ever female president of the United States is a great tribute not only to her, and her perseverance, skill, talent and dedication, but to the American system and the American people who will elect her.
As ugly as Trump is, he is only a byproduct of the residual hate, rage, impotent frustration and willful ignorance that were coaxed to arise in the wake of the election of the nation’s first African-American president. His rude and filthy tongue and demeanor is a caricature of all that ugliness rolled into one bloated, twisted cartoon.
But most of America has moved on. There were still racists after the Civil War. There were still male supremacist misogynists after Suffrage. Some residue of far worse bygone days persists and sometimes seem to have the advantage by virtue of a wanton willingness to break the rules, including of civility and any laws advancing justice and equality, and to resort without shame to threats, blackmail and deceit.
That said, and as distressing as it is, forget not that this nation elected an African-American president twice recently, and is about to elect its first woman president.
The nation will come through this distasteful chapter in its history as long as the proponents of progress and equality don’t fade.