Backstage, the vice president was preparing to take the stage. It was 1960 and Richard Nixon, the early favourite, was heading into the first-ever televised presidential debate the more experienced man. His rival, the young upstart Senator, John ‘Jack’ F. Kennedy, was gaining ground on him with his youthful exuberance and winning smile; “would you like some makeup Mr Senator”, asked one of the backstage team. The younger man shook it off, “no, thank you”. Not wanting to seem old and less attractive, Nixon also declined.
Secretly, before taking to the stage, Kennedy did have his face powdered; this move was arguably crucial in winning him the presidency. For radio listeners that night, Nixon was proclaimed to have won. His detailed statesmanlike discussion of policy showed his experience in the precarious world of Cold War America. But with the lights of the television studio upon him – and the absence of powder from his face – a shiny, sweaty, ill-looking Nixon paled in comparison to the younger, made-up man.
Nixon, by comparison to the 2020 nominees, would have looked young, poised and ready to lead. Neither candidate on the debate stage last night was able to cover themselves in any glory, with Joe Biden stumbling over his words during scripted remarks on vague policy and Donald Trump looking like a petulant child, interrupting Biden at every turn to interject with falsehoods.
In the hours after the debate, CNN’s fact-checker in Chief, Daniel Dale, spoke of an “avalanche of lying” from Trump; Biden was not immune to misstatements and falsehoods, but on the whole, tried to remain grounded on planet earth. For Donald Trump – with a death toll of more than 200,000 from Coronavirus, a hypocritical nomination of a Supreme Court nominee and disastrous poll numbers – the facts are so damning against him that he has to create a new world of truth that he can inhabit; one that does not make him look like a failed president.
“Clearly this debate was an embarrassment for the United States”, said CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer following the debate; there is not really any other way to look at it. At 74 years old, Donald Trump was the younger man on the Cleveland debate stage, but a fresh spray tan for did not have the same impact as a lick of makeup did for Kennedy, he looked tired and incompetent, a petulant child interrupting every time his classmate told the teacher the mean things they had done. Though, this will not be to be news to most Americans, who have seen him acting the same way from the Oval Office for four years.
Biden’s main objective for the night was to not mess up. He currently has a healthy lead in the majority of swing states and is on course for not just a popular vote victory (with the candidate winning the most votes in an election seemingly irrelevant in modern America) but an Electoral College one. He mostly achieved this, there were no major fumbles and by contrast to the man who inhabits the office he aspires to hold, he looked like he knew that on a debate stage you should look ‘presidential’, even if he could not achieve it himself.
One of the best lines of the night came from Biden after Trump continued interrupting him whilst trying to answer a question on whether he would pack the Supreme Court in response to Trump nominating Amy Coney Barrett for Americas top bench. “Will you shut up man”, became perhaps the most endearing line – in close competition with Biden calling Trump a “clown”. Biden said what most of us have been thinking for years and his line certainly won him the debate amongst some viewers.
The one time that viewers did not want Donald Trump to shut up was when he was asked to condemn white supremacists, but in typical Trumpian fashion, many words were spoken, yet nothing was said. When asked by debate host Chris Wallace whether he would condemn white supremacy Trump said “sure […] but I would say all of the violence I see is from the left-wing”, before condemning Antifa instead and stating “proud boys, stand back and stand by”. The Proud Boys are a men-only neofascist organisation that have been known to engage in violence and intimidate Democratic officeholders – primarily those of colour.
In the days after the news story that the Trump campaign had spent much of the last election trying to discourage African Americans from voting in swing states – their success in doing so being almost certainly decisive – it was clear that Biden’s main objective was to tell people to vote. He donated swathes of his floor time to telling Americans to go to the polls and to do so early, with the knowledge that the Trump campaign is likely engaging in dissuasion tactics again, likely causing huge concern as to how Biden’s positive poll numbers might translate into election day results.
Whilst both men were wearing makeup, neither had polish. Under the glaring studio lights, they both looked tired, unfit for office and barely in control of their words; neither even had the Nixonian policy expertise – something that was at least offered by Clinton in 2016. Whilst Biden clearly had more knowledge, neither were in command of the facts. Trump may have come off the stage looking worse than Biden, but his entire time in office has been underlined by the same incompetence and untruths that gushed from his overly expressive lips last night. Biden may have edged it, but as Bill Clinton’s former Communications Director, George Stephanopoulos, said: “that was the worst presidential debate I have ever seen in my life”.