The 2016 debates lacked Quemoy and Matsu.
In 1960, a gentlemanly quarrel about these two tiny islands was the most significant policy difference in the Kennedy-Nixon debate, though historians call the proceedings a watershed event in televised politics.
Nixon said the islands off China’s coast merited Cold War saber-rattling. Kennedy said they didn’t.
The Clinton-Trump presidential debates? Nothing of that sort. Really, nothing at all. However, I’m here to convince you that they were the most important, and yes, substantive, ever.
They were important because we saw the substance in both candidates. More accurately: In one candidate we saw substance; in the other we saw a charred crater.
As many have observed, any real policy distinctions in these debates were obscured by layers of tar and slime. Personal distinctions, however, became crystal-clear, like – you know, the first time the optometrist fits you for corrective lenses.
The polls say hundreds of thousands of Americans watched these debates and exclaimed, “Oh, my goodness; I see.”
In Donald Trump, they saw someone with a history of indefensible acts who, well, won’t defend them.
He says he’ll sue those who say he did what he did. (In much the same way, no doubt, that O.J. Simpson devoted himself to “finding the real killer”).
Those undecideds saw, by word and deed, a candidate less devoted to winning the election than discrediting the result to come.
This is understandable, with, as Donald Jr. said after Debate 3, the role of being CEO of our nation being a step down from Trump Tower.
Those undecideds saw Trump claim that the election is rigged. This, though the only known attempt at rigging comes from Russian hackers. Interestingly, Trump has been meticulous in giving the Russians a pass on that.
Oh, and you did hear that the Russians want to send election monitors? I’m curious: Over which candidate’s fate are they fretting?
Clinton said Trump would be Putin’s puppet. Trump’s rejoinder was that he was rubber and she was glue. Touché.
These things considered, this was still the most substantive set of presidential debates ever. Why? Because, before it was too late, the nation saw the stuff of which the candidates were made.
This wasn’t a matter of sweat on an upper lip. This was a matter of poise (or the lack thereof), of dignity (or its absence), of command, of experience — of one, and only one on the stage, being up to the task of leading this nation and the free world.
Clinton’s political foes have tried for three decades to cast her as untrustworthy, even criminal. At this point, I’m reminded of David Brock, the former Republican operative who, writing for the American Spectator, set in motion much of what became the Whitewater narrative.
Over time, Brock, author of “Blinded by the Right,” would come to understand that it wasn’t Clinton who was corrupt. It was the right-wing ideologues consumed with bloodlust for her.
After years of studying Hillary Clinton’s every move at the behest of Republican financiers, Brock came to praise her “prodigious talents, strong character, and bedrock American values.” Though she was only first lady as the time, Brock wrote that Hillary could end up being “an even more historically significant figure than her husband.”
Donald Trump, in three debates, has done much to advance that narrative.
I know that many voters are disgusted at the paucity of policy substance in those debates. But what clearly was best for the country was to see personal substance.
John Kennedy won the ’60 debate, but not so decisively that Richard Nixon would not return to the arena to do bad things to the presidency.
Maybe instead of Quemoy and Matsu, Americans should have been allowed, in moments of sheer unsightliness, to really see each candidate’s true substance, like we just did in Clinton vs. Trump.
Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.