What We Lost During Last Night’s Cringeworthy Debate

The first presidential debate of this protracted presidential season was a horror show. Preceded by what seemed like weeks of excited speculation, idiotic predictions, and presumptive pre-debate analysis, when the debate actually happened, it demonstrated the dire choice that the two major political parties have given the electorate: pick the ranting liar and fear-mongering xenophobe, or choose the befuddled, stumbling man whose attempts to explain policy. (“I support Roe v. Wade, which had three trimesters”?) It was painful to watch.

One might rightly wonder what purpose presidential debates serve, particularly this year. We already know both candidates pretty well, and if we don’t, we have four more months to learn that Trump neither cares for the duties of office or the complexities of foreign affairs (and cultures), but does possess a talent for stirring up prejudice, for making people laugh, and for making them fearful. He does not answer questions. Last night, he avoided the question on the war in Gaza. He punted on the opioid crisis and climate change. He makes no appeal to decency, which is Biden’s forte (or was). But decency without backbone is what makes Biden appear, well, doddery. And we can watch that too until November. In fact, this otherwise consequential president seemed most focused when he talked about hitting a golf ball.

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Part of the problem is that we live in a visual age. As a result, though we value them, our presumptive leaders become leaders even if they lack oratorical skills. In fact, it’s not surprising that the first well-known presidential debate, in 1960, occurred when television was a relatively new medium, and it did Richard Nixon no favors. No one remembers what he said, just how he looked. (Actually, the first televised debate, between candidates Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower, took place four years earlier but without them; they used stand-ins, Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Chase Smith.) Before that, presidents depended on radio, with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” bringing him, and his voice, with its powers of persuasion, into one’s home. Before that, we debated in the public square of newspapers. Word, skillfully written, can change minds. Consider Lincoln and Douglas, a debate for a seat in the Senate, and the rest is history.

So oratory matters. The ability to persuade, through words, mattered. It still does, which is why last night’s debate was so chilling. When William Jennings Bryan was nominated by Democrats as their presidential candidate for the third time in 1908, even though he’d been unsuccessful twice before, it was because of his oratorical gift. His voice, once heard, was never forgotten. He could address a crowd of 20,000 and make the audience feel as though he spoke directly to each and everyone one of them and he understood what they needed. They called him the “Great Commoner.” He even started a newspaper so he could write column after column and deliver what amounted to sermons.

And, like all good orators, he knew how to perform. He did not want his tie too straight. Bryan practiced parts of his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, one of the most famous in American political history, for months and months before he delivered it in 1896 at the Democratic National Convention. He bounded onto the stage, raised his arms, and then spoke in the lyrical, cadenced phrases of Scripture. “We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity,” Bryan declared. “We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned; we have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded; we have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came. We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more.” It was good stuff.

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But performance needs substance. And so Bryan would eventually meet his nemesis when he was confronted by an orator even more practiced, clever, and dramatic than he. That was Clarence Darrow, the celebrated lawyer in rumpled clothes whose talent for mesmerizing juries with his impression of humility (some of which was genuine) was unparalleled. Though not a politician, or at least not a professional one, Darrow was a man who could deliver a rational argument with much emotion. It was a winning combination.

Take his defense of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two teenagers accused of the gruesome and motiveless murder of 14 year-old Bobby Franks. Darrow had Leopold and Loeb plead guilty to avoid a jury trial so he could argue before the judge that their lives should be spared. Claiming Leopold and Loeb were just adolescents, the products of genetics and environment, Darrow said they were essentially without free will. “They killed,” said Darrow, “because hey were made that way.” At the same time, let us not blindly and cruelly call for yet another death, he implored the judge. Let us acknowledge that capital punishment grows out of our primitive need for vengeance, and let’s acknowledge that our killing two defective, two abnormal adolescents would not prevent other impaired boys or malevolent men or vicious women from committing murder.

“I sometimes wonder whether I am dreaming, whether I am not living in centuries long gone by, when savagery roamed wild, and the world was wet with human blood?” he concluded at the trial’s end. It was a consummate performance: a rational argument topped off by an emotional one. Leopold and Loeb received life sentences.

When Darrow and Bryan confronted each other in the courtroom, both of them, like Biden and Trump, were considered past their prime. Certainly they weren’t vying for the Oval Office, and their confrontation took place in a court of law, not on a television set. But they were jousting over the meaning of America and America’s future with far more passion, compassion, and reasonableness than anything that happened last night on the debate stage. For all his faults, Bryan was an optimistic idealist who thought he could improve the lives of ordinary men and women. He was a progressive who sincerely believed—and fought for—such reforms as the government ownership of utilities, a graduated income tax, currency reform, woman's suffrage and, for better and worse, Prohibition, which, in his mind, would help purify the nation by abolishing alcoholism, child abuse, and violence against women.

But when he wanted to turn the country into a Christian theocracy, Darrow objected. Their showdown took place in the summer of 1925 over a law recently passed by the Tennessee legislature that barred teaching the theory of evolution in public schools. It later became known, famously, as the Scopes Trial.

Darrow volunteered to defend the young schoolteacher who had purposefully broken the law (to test it), and he mustered, once again, all his oratorical skills. “Ignorance and fanaticism are ever busy and needs feeding,” Darrow declared. “Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lecturers, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After a while, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind."

“No subject possesses the minds of men like religious bigotry and hate,” Darrow concluded, “and these fires are being lighted today in America.”

He spoke without notes. He was persuasive and passionate. That’s what I thought about—what we had lost—as I watched last night’s sad, cringeworthy debate.

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