SATURDAY, OCTOBER 24, 2020
"Excuse me," the president said: In this morning's print editions, the New York Times published three letters about Thursday night's debate.
One writer makes an apt observation, then closes with a question:
To the Editor:
Your reporters’ characterization of the second presidential debate as “more restrained” is at best damning by faint praise. The longer the debate went on, the more President Trump interrupted, went over his time limits and ignored the moderator’s pleas to move on.
Perhaps because I am a history teacher, I found myself astounded by the president’s angry lies. Could we someday have an honest exchange of views?
The letter writer is a professor emeritus at Williams. He started with an excellent point about Donald J. Trump's interruptions.
During Thursday night's debate, Trump interrupted Biden a great deal less than he did during his crazy performance at their first debate. That said, he constantly interrupted the moderator, Kristin Welker, as she tried to move the various discussions along.
"Excuse me," Trump said, again and again, as Welker tried to introduce a new topic or ask a new question about an existing topic.
Again and again and again and again, the commander showed a commanding need to get the last word in. If you search this transcript-plus-videotape for the simple words, "Excuse me," you can review Welker's ongoing struggle to rein the commander in.
In our view, Welker never got control of that situation, though we'll guess that very few journalists would have been able to do so. Trump interrupted Biden much less, but he interrupted Welker all night long.
We've seen few pundits mention this point, so we're glad the professor did.
Having made a strong observation, the professor then asked a question. He asked if we will ever be able to have "an honest exchange of views."
"Honesty" is hard to assess. We'd fault the professor for failing to grasp this basic fact.
That said, can we ever have a coherent discussion , one which isn't dominated by false or misleading statements? The answer is, we probably can't, as long as moderators try to work too many topics and questions in.
Other journalists have stood in line to praise Welker's performance. We felt she was largely overpowered by Trump's interruptions, as almost anyone else would have been, but also that she deferred to the commander's will to power in some of the questions she asked.
Yesterday, we noted the way she deferred to the commander's fatuous claim that he would respond to Obamacare's termination by instituting "much better health care." (On this occasion, he forgot to say "at a much lower price.")
A candidate couldn't possibly make an emptier statement—but as we noted, Welker simply let it go. Instead, she challenged Biden's actual health care proposals, working from a bit of right-wing agitprop.
In so doing, she rolled over and died in the face of Trump's utterly fatuous statement. Also, why in the world would a moderator respond to Trump's refusal to release his tax returns by asking a question like this?
WELKER: You just said you spoke to your accountant about potentially releasing your taxes. Did he tell you when you can release them? Do you have a deadline for when you're going to release them to the American people?
After all these years, why on earth, why in the world, would a journalist ask that question? Everyone on the face of the earth knew what Trump would say in response to that pointless question:
TRUMP (continuing directly): As soon as the auditors finish. I get treated worse than the tea party got treated, because I have a lot of people in there—
TRUMP: —deep down in the IRS, they treat me horribly. We made a deal, it was all settled until I decide to run for president. I get treated very badly by the IRS, very unfairly, but we had a deal all done. As soon as we're completed with the deal, I want to release it, but I have paid millions and millions of dollars and it's worse than paying. I paid in advance. It's called prepaying your taxes. I paid—
The nonsense about the tax returns went on and on from there, with Trump constantly struggling to get the last word in. That said, Welker, like everyone else on the planet, knew exactly what Trump would say in response to her T-ball question.
Trump has been saying since 2015 that he will release his tax returns as soon as his audit is done. Meanwhile, we don't think we've ever seen a journalist ask him this, as Welker should have done:
"Mr. President, Vice President Biden just said that he has released 22 years of his tax returns. Why can't you release your tax returns from earlier years, even as you wait for your current audit to be done?"
Have you ever seen that question asked? We can't recall that we have.
The professor asks if we can ever have a real exchange of views. We'll make one final suggestion:
Plainly, the answer will be no, as long as moderatos insist on raising too many topics and asking too many different questions.
Presidential candidates will always tend to misstate and evade. This has become an apparent matter of pathology where Candidate Trump is involved.
At any rate, it will never be easy to get clear even on such a major topic as the health care proposals of the two major candidates. It will be impossible to do so if a moderator has a hundred other questions he or she wants to move to—and Welker was plagued by Too Many Questions Disease in her work Thursday night.
Why hasn't Donald J. Trump ever offered a health care plan? Especially at the present time, could any question be more salient than that?
That said, with so many other questions to ask, Welker let his absurdly empty statement of intention slide. He said he'd produce "much better health care," and she chose to move on.
Why hasn't Donald J. Trump released his earlier tax return? Rather than ask this obvious question, Welker chose to play T-ball.
Why hasn't Trump produced a health care plan? Welker didn't ask.
Welker had a tough assignment Thursday night. In large, part, that was so because one candidate seems to be severely disordered, and the press corps has steadfastly refused to examine that obvious point.
Welker had a very tough assignment. All in all, we didn't think she did especially well, in large part because she tried to ask too many different questions about too many topics and sub-topics.
In the aftermath of the debate, Welker's colleagues stood in line to praise her brilliant performance. Under the power of Trump's attacks, that is now another way our floundering discourse works.
Purity of heart is to ask one thing: When Trump refused to answer her question, Savannah Guthrie just kept repeating her question. She asked it again and again.
Purity of heart is to ask one thing. We believe Abraham Lincoln said that.