By Jules Witcover
Near the end of Monday night’s first presidential debate, Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed champion counter-puncher, led with his chin when asked by moderator Lester Holt of NBC News what he meant by saying rival Hillary Clinton did not have “a presidential look.”
“She doesn’t have the look,” Trump replied. “She doesn’t have the stamina.” But as the television split screen captured them standing side-by-side after 90 minutes of intensive verbal combat, Clinton seemed as alert and on her game as he did, despite the bout with pneumonia that had temporarily forced her off the campaign trail.
She pounced on Trump’s answer, converting it deftly to cast it in sexist terms. “He tried to switch from looks to stamina,” she said, “but this is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs.” In one phrase, she kept Trump on the defensive as he had been most of the night.
After the opening minutes, in which he presented a deferential and insult-free Donald, Clinton’s relentless reminders of the more aggressive and intemperate Donald seemed increasingly to get under his thin skin.
At one point, Trump ventured to suggest he had the better “temperament” to be president. “I think my strongest asset maybe by far is my temperament,” he said. “I have a wonderful temperament. I know how to win.”
The remark drew laughter in the hall at Hofstra University and a smile from Clinton. “As soon as he travels to 112 countries and negotiates a peace deal, a ceasefire, a release of dissidents, an opening of new opportunities in nations around the world, or even spends 11 hours testifying in front of a Congressional committee, he can talk to me about stamina,” she noted.
Obviously flustered, Trump hinted he had considered getting into the matter of Bill Clinton’s presidential infidelities. But, he said, “I just can’t do it,” which demonstrated rare political wisdom as well as caution on his part.
Through all this, Clinton largely resisted the condescending sighs and eyebrow raisings of Al Gore in his 2000 television debate with then Texas Gov. George W. Bush, which later were blamed for his defeat.
Instead, Clinton urged fact-checkers “to get to work” on Trump’s latest assertions, including his assertion that she had started the fallacious allegation that Barack Obama was not American-born. Trump went further, insisting he had forced the president to present his Hawaii birth certificate.
In the process, Clinton risked more public criticism that she is not “likeable enough,” as Obama memorably characterized her in their 2008 race for the Democratic nomination. She proceeded to pursue Trump on other unanswered questions, including his failure to make public his recent income tax returns.
Trump, famous as the practitioner of the art of the deal, offered to do so if Clinton would agree to make public 33,000 emails said to be have been deleted from her private server. But when Holt asked him if such a deal was “negotiable,” he said no.
The pointedly neutral moderator did his best to get more candor from both candidates, with only moderate success. Trump remained in a defensive crouch throughout the debate in which he began as congenial and benign Donald but eventually reverted to his slashing style, as Clinton continued to press him.
Holt was under particular pressure after NBC colleague Matt Lauer took much heat for not fact-checking Trump in a previous candidate forum over his demonstrably false claim that he had opposed the Iraq invasion. This time, Clinton challenged her adversary on the issue herself, but Trump held fast to his denial. Otherwise, Holt ran the debate with admirable calm and persistence.
One CNN-ORC poll of about 500 viewers immediately afterward found 62 percent declaring Clinton the winner to only 27 percent for Trump, but the majority identified themselves as Democrats. More heat than light was shed by the first Clinton-Trump encounter, so the quest for more of the latter will go on, with the second presidential debate set for Oct. 9 at Washington University in St. Louis, on national security and foreign policy.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at [email protected]. Column courtesy of the Associated Press.