A shining moment in a dark debate

Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light.

By Robert A. Cohn


Sunday’s night’s second presidential debate at Washington University, like much of the entire campaign, was filled with rancor, vitriol, disrespect and an utter lack of civility — except for one surprising shining moment. An audience member, Karl Becker in the final question of the evening, asked each candidate to say something positive about the other. 

Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump seemed taken aback by the question, but each weighed in with a positive comment about the other. Clinton said that she admired Trump’s children, and Trump said he admired Clinton’s toughness and tenacity. Becker, along with another positive questioner, Ken Bone (the man in the red sweater) became overnight internet sensations. 

Those brief moments of positivity did much to dispel the darkness, not only of the debate but of the general debasement of presidential politics during this campaign to a degree not seen in recent memory. Several of the students who attended the debate at Washington U. said that it was reassuring that Trump and Clinton ended their slugfest on a positive note. 

The debate came only two days after the latest bombshell in the campaign: the surfacing of leaked video from 2005 in which Donald Trump is heard making horrifically crude comments about women to Billy Bush, the then-host of “Access Hollywood.” Bush now works on the “Today” show for NBC, which also owns “Access Hollywood.”

The comments included boasting about sexually assaulting women in terms too vile for a family newspaper. Those Trump comments, which he admitted were his words and for which he issued a half-hearted “apology,” crossed the line for many of Trump’s die-hard supporters. Several leading Republicans withdrew their earlier endorsements of Trump and, for a time, it appeared that his entire campaign would implode, forcing him to withdraw or causing the Republican National Committee to replace him at the top of the ticket. 

Trump seems to have dodged that bullet in his debate performance Sunday, and most commentators across the ideological spectrum opined that he had stopped the bleeding by reiterating his apology and shifting to other topics almost immediately. 

While Trump seems to have staunched the bleeding in his campaign, his lewd comments revealed last Friday were just the latest in a long list of insults he delivered during the primaries and since he won the nomination. Trump has insulted Mexican and Muslim Americans; said that he does not consider Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who endured seven years of torture in a North Vietnamese prison camp, to be a war hero; mocked a reporter with a disability; and disrespected a Gold Star family. 

To be sure, Hillary Clinton is no angel, especially when it comes to telling the unvarnished truth to the American people regarding her email server, how she handled Benghazi, her positions on the “Russian Reset” and a host of other issues. She also has been unsparing in her harsh criticism of Trump as both a candidate and as a person. 

Ironically, Clinton and Trump previously shared a positive view of one another and had a cordial relationship. Clinton’s daughter Chelsea and Trump’s daughter Ivanka, each of whom has a Jewish husband, reportedly remain friendly. 

It seems clear that either Clinton or Trump will be the next president of the United States. The two candidates are the least popular among the electorate of any such pairings since the history of polling. 

The American people are already familiar with the “bad” and the “ugly” about the two major party candidates. What is less well known, except among their diehard supporters, are the positive qualities each would bring to the nation’s highest office if elected. The altruistic question asked by the audience member at the end of the contentious debate forced each candidate to say something positive about one another; it was a tiny spark of light in an otherwise dark debate and campaign. 

As the campaign enters its last few weeks before election day, let us hope that the candidates not only for president but for all elective offices on the ballot will rise above the mudslinging and vitriol. Being a mensch is much more important that being “tough” or “strong.” That quality of decency, so absent in this campaign, could go a long way toward draining the election of its degrading meanness and utter lack of civility.