What happened in America on Monday night was that two famous people went door-to-door, dropping in to visit with more than 84 million people who had mostly known them only from afar, having watched occasionally as they were being praised and cheered or vilified and caricatured.
In a real sense, millions of Americans got to know Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton a lot better after spending an hour-and-a-half with them in their parlors, living rooms and rec rooms via their favorite news screens, large and small.
Those of us who cover these quadrennial rituals traditionally get carried away by our collective chatter about how we think the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees did in the first debate of every fall campaign. But of course, what we think doesn’t matter. And what the candidates’ designated spinners and pooh-bahs say (about what they want us to think they think) matters even less.
The only thing that really does matter is what America’s potential voters are thinking after their up-close and personal exposure to the two major party candidates.
And so, after watching the extensive time-wasting coverage by all network and cable TV news organizations and most print and online media, it was genuinely instructive to see one news organization actually add significantly to our insight about what had really happened Monday night.
It came not from a lesser-known news outlet (often where the most innovative news-thinking occurs) but from a front page report in Wednesday’s New York Times. Correspondent Trip Gabriel interviewed a number of undecided women in the suburban community of West Chester, Pa., outside Philadelphia. Undecided suburban women voters have become the swing voters who decide whether the Republican or Democrat will win elections in this era where Republicans have been decisively capturing white male votes in suburbs of the key battleground states.
The Times article began: “Donald J. Trump badly needed to make an impression on women like Nancy Groux in Monday’s presidential debate.” And, it turned out that’s how Trump made his impression — badly! At least among the independent women in this sampling of suburbanites who really wanted to like him and vote for him.
“I truly want to like him,” Groux told the Times. “I keep looking for something in him. But I can’t have my children grow up and look at him as someone to respect.” She thought Clinton seemed “presidential” but Trump seemed like a “bull in a china closet.”
Pollster alert: There is nothing scientific in this or any other reporter’s sampling of voters. Yet, the interviewer has focused on individuals who were genuinely undecided; most interestingly, women who aren’t enamored of Clinton, who hoped to be impressed by Trump — but weren’t. And who then explained why. Their thinking can provide insights that are far more valuable than mere polling numbers.
Gabriel’s article quoted Republican women who wanted to vote for Trump but couldn’t after seeing “the faces he made — he rolled his eyes,” as one said. Several who wanted to support Trump were troubled by the fact that he seemed so unprepared and lacking in ideas and understanding of the crises we face. Groux was among those who didn’t like the fact that Trump won’t release his taxes. Indeed, when Clinton pounced on that, suggesting that perhaps Trump is trying to prevent Americans from discovering he didn’t pay any income taxes, Trump interrupted — but not to deny it. “That makes me smart,” Trump interjected.
Clinton also struck a chord that resonated with these women when she confronted Trump directly about his name-calling abuse of a former Miss Universe who had gained weight. He called her “Miss Piggy” and, apparently because she is of Latin American heritage, “Miss Housekeeping.” “That is embarrassing,” Trump supporter Kim Gray told the Times. “I have a daughter. I have a son who’d never speak like that.”
With two more debates ahead, Trump of course has time to cram enough to perhaps fake preparedness and repeat solutions given to him by experts. But what he cannot fake — and cannot hide — is his history of bullying a beauty pageant winner for gaining weight and amusing a rally crowd by ridiculing a physically handicapped journalist.
As Francesca Yabraian, a wise woman who is herself an American with a disability, once told me, “He is a soulless man.”
And Trump cannot cram enough or fake enough — or pay enough back taxes — to ever make us un-remember that fatal flaw that every caring Republican knows, deep-down, should disqualify him from ever being our commander-in-chief.
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at email@example.com.