The first presidential debate between President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden, held on Sept. 29 in Cleveland, was a spectacle that lost all semblance to what a debate is or should be. Instead of a respectful marshalling of arguments, the shouting match that ensued was a travesty, an insult to the American people’s intelligence, and a mark of disrespect aimed at American traditions and to the very culture of civil discussion.
Deeply disturbed after watching the presidential debate debacle, and in an attempt to erase the memory of what I had witnessed, I went through videos of famous debates and came upon one between James Baldwin — the brilliant essayist and novelist — and William F. Buckley — the versatile conservative intellectual and founder of National Review. The debate was held at Cambridge in the United Kingdom in 1965 and dealt with the question of whether the American Dream is achieved at the expense of Blacks in America.
I confess, I’ve since seen this video multiple times, and each time I’m increasingly enthralled by Baldwin’s poetic eloquence and Buckley’s rhetorical flourishes.
It’s worth noting that both William Buckley and James Baldwin sat quietly, attentively, through the duration of their opponent’s arguments; 24 minutes as Baldwin supported the proposition and 28 minutes as Buckley opposed it. It is evident that these were two men who came from different sides of the fence on this as well as other issues.
Those were the days when the debate stage was a platform to test the speaker’s ability to think on one’s feet and present arguments cogently, logically and coherently. Besides Baldwin and Buckley’s insights, persuasive words and practiced delivery, I was inordinately struck by the rules of the debate floor at Cambridge where opportunity, space and time were given to each debater to complete their thoughts, no matter how damaging that said thought was perceived to be.
Not so in the debate we saw this week, which will go down as one of the worst presidential eruptions of all time, tearing apart and dismantling the politics of polite disagreement.
Within minutes of taking the stage, Trump proceeded to undermine, heckle, taunt and insult former vice president Joe Biden, leading Chris Wallace, a Fox News anchor and moderator of the debate, to evince sympathy for Biden. “The country would be better served if we allow both people to speak with fewer interruptions. I’m appealing to you to do that,” he chided, looking directly at the president. “What about him?” Trump asked, like a 5-year-old pointing fingers, as he gestured at Biden, and Wallace was forced to respond honestly, “Frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting.”
Many high school and college debate clubs offer a “Do Not” list for new debaters and most of them mention “do not interrupt,” “do not condescend” and “do not personally attack,” all three of which were in full evidence and given full throttle, particularly by President Trump.
I picked the Baldwin-Buckley debate, despite the different format (and there being less at stake for the two debaters), since many of the arguments the two well-known speakers made in 1965 are the same arguments that are being made today by our opposing presidential candidates, especially on the charged and polarizing topics of racial tension and law enforcement.
Early on during the debate, Baldwin pointed out that the question of whether the American Dream is at the expense of the Black community is “hideously loaded” and the response can only come from an individual’s sense of reality, and the particular assumptions one carries to give credibility to that reality. He went on to give an example of the Alabama sheriff “who really does believe when he’s facing a [Black] boy or girl, that this woman, this man, this child must be insane to attack the system to which he owes his entire identity. According to this person, the proposition that we’re trying to discuss here tonight does not exist.” The parallel I can draw in today’s troubled times is that of a player kneeling during the national anthem. Is he disrespecting the flag, which forms part of his identity, or is he expressing his trauma at the continuing violence meted out to his brothers and sisters?
Most famous debates leave you with memorable moments that act like sticky-note reminders. I recall the presidential debate in 1984, when Ronald Reagan was questioned about being the oldest president in history. “I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience,” he retorted, straight-faced, with superb timing, evoking immediate laughter from the audience and his opponent. It was a time when disagreement was not so venomous.
There are many thought-provoking statements made during the Baldwin-Buckley debate. Notable among them is Baldwin’s asseveration, “And I picked the cotton, and I carried it to market, and I built the railroads under someone else’s whip; for nothing.” There is pin-drop silence as the scope of that remark sinks in with each emphatic “I”.
Of course, neither Biden nor Trump are Baldwin or Buckley, and so the only takeaway from their debate this week will be the frustrated exclamation Biden used to dismiss Trump’s heckling. This one phrase will now be entered into the annals of our history books as being uttered by one septuagenarian white dude to another, both fighting to be the leader of the United States of America for the next four years: “Will you shut up, man?”
Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.