Matching Style for Style in Politics

Screenshot from the first 2024 Presidential debate, hosted by CNN.

Screenshot from the first 2024 Presidential debate, hosted by CNN.



After the American presidential debate aired last week, a woman in Switzerland, a Facebook friend I know nothing about, said the USA is doomed either way. Fair enough. The debate reflected very badly on everyone including the moderators. The golf sequence alone should bring us shame before the Swiss. I will not add to the gloom.

What I have been wondering—as I have for years—is why Dems cannot seem to counter crude schoolyard putdowns and the verbose, word-cloud attack called the Gish Gallop. My friend Crazy Larry and I were imagining Biden’s prep sessions, given his approach in the debate. We suspected they were run by wonks and apparatchiks intent on explaining two things to the American public: reality, and how the president’s team was so square they did not understand the occasion.

As Tom Nichols at The Atlantic said the next day, “The president’s staff clearly overprepared their candidate, stuffing his head with factoids about Pell Grants and climate targets and tax rates and other things that are completely irrelevant in a debate with a deranged bully. If this was the work of the White House prep team, then they are guilty of egregious political malpractice….”

Another commentator said Trump knew the debate was not about facts but about being what you are. That does not even take prep. Trump does this naturally.

The situation made me think of a conversation I once had with a close friend who is an engineer. We both had young kids and were tired and hot from a day at a theme park. We had our two families in one minivan and were headed back to the hotel. To make conversation I told him we did not have a cable package at home, so my sons and I sometimes watched the free NASA channel. The content was not bad, but the production values were awful.

He resisted the idea, apparently on behalf of engineers everywhere.

I said the problems were not about engineering, they were about the amateurish presentation—shaky camera work, bad edits, awkward hosts and guests.

He said NASA had to test and re-test and re-test technology over and over again to make sure it would hold up, so things often looked out-of-date by the time we saw them but were known to work, which was the main thing.

I wondered which one of us had had the heat stroke. I said I had been making home movies with iMovie on my Mac, and they looked better and more professional than the NASA channel. I said Kukla, Fran and Ollie, when I watched it in black-and-white on proto-PBS, looked better than that.

He gripped the steering wheel very tightly and told me many details of the Mars Phoenix Lander mission which was then in progress.

This, I imagine, must be the grim mindset of Democratic debate preppers: Must. Explain. Economy. Upswing. Never mind the palatability of the candidate.

What Biden’s team needed, as Larry pointed out, was someone to relax the candidate and prep him for what everyone knew would happen on a stage with Trump. If only there had been a consultant to be had with the chops of a Saturday Night Live performer—maybe someone who had written satirical books about the political right and served in office himself. Sadly, when the other party goes low, Dems think they must go high, a purity test that is often less than useful.

Larry agreed that Trump has only a few rhetorical ploys and is easily made mad. Remember, No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet? The funny that wins in the end is the funny in control of the emotional situation.

“Use some of his tics against him,” I said. “When he claimed to be in perfect health and mocked your golf drive, you should say, ‘Everybody says you’re held together by Special Sauce. I don’t know…that’s what they’re all saying, all the people are saying it. They come to me and say, “Sir, your opponent is made of Mac meat and Special Sauce,” and I say to them, ‘Oooh, that doesn’t sound good. Doesn’t sound good at all. But you know….’

“‘That famous photo of you crawling up a hill at Pebble Beach looks like Jabba the Hutt escaping the sand worm at the Great Pit of Carkoon.’”

Larry became a debate prepper too. “You say, ‘You won two golf championships at your own club, huh? I bet if I bought a club I could win tournaments too.’”

It is an interesting thought experiment to put a young Jack Kennedy on stage with candidate Donald Trump. How would it go, given Kennedy’s decorum and elegance? I suspect as badly for Trump as it went for Nixon. I can even imagine Kennedy using the old Rodney Dangerfield line: “This, er, fellah, really seems to care. About what, I have no ideah.”

Steven Spielberg has signed on to help with the Democratic National Convention and Biden’s campaign. I suppose it is a good match, though whether that team can win against the Trump machine is another thing entirely. In my mind’s eye the production, which I hope to attend, looks more like avuncular Tom Hanks emceeing a patriotic ceremony at the end of the world.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.