By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
One debate down, two more to endure
Rich Manieri
Rich Manieri

That’s over, and not a second too soon.

Who won? Who cares? If you can find a winner somewhere in that mess, “Ah Salud!” as the Italians say.

There was Trump, festooned in his presidential uniform, hair helmet included, and Biden, looking like a cross between my Welsh Corgi and a ghost in Disneyworld’s Haunted Mansion. 

I confess, I tuned into the first presidential debate for two reasons - one of which was merely macabre curiosity, the other a sense of responsibility as an American voter.

But this was a debate only in the academic sense. There were two candidates on stage and a moderator. That was about it. Otherwise, it was a bar fight at 2 a.m. after a few too many. 

Poor Chris Wallace, who was given the impossible job of bouncer, should have taken the two of them by their respective collars and thrown them into the alley.

In the end, we learned nothing.

The morning after, I tried to explain the 90-minute spectacle to a class of journalism students, all of whom will be voting for the first time this election. But I wanted to hear from them first.

“What did you think of last night’s debate?” I asked.

A long pause. Some of them looked at me as if they’ve just seen a dead body for the first time. Then a young woman chimed in.

“I hadn’t been to the circus since I was about 8, but this was pretty close,” she said.

“I turned it off after about 30 minutes. I couldn’t take all the yelling,” said a student who works on the school newspaper.

Who could blame her? The name calling, the interrupting, the raised voices talking over one another. 

“It gave me a headache,” she said. Me too.

We talk often in class about the need for civil discourse, fairness and respect, not only in journalism but in our day-to-day activities and conversations. And here, in front of the watching world were two men, each in their seventies, vying for the unofficial title of “Leader of the Free World,” yet utterly incapable of having an honest, civil exchange of ideas.

It was interesting after the fact watching partisans on both sides attempt to declare a winner. What does winning even look like? Is the winner the one who talks louder? Then it’s Trump. If all victory requires is being someone other than Donald Trump and staying awake for the full 90 minutes, then I suppose Biden won.

Talk about a low bar. Even by modern political standards, which are well south of Antarctica, this was a fiasco.

My expectations were not high but I expected more. Neither candidate effectively articulated a plan for dealing with the issues of today, much less a vision for tomorrow. 

So, what’s the point? 

It’s a fair question. Pollsters will tell you voters’ minds are already made up and debates rarely move the needle. Do we still need a public demonstration of political sausage making? 

If you look at a presidential debate strictly as a television event, I suppose it would fit the “Reality TV” category where you find other gems, such as Tiger King and Doomsday Preppers.  

I will allow for the possibility that my debate standards are too high. These are politicians, after all. Perhaps a bare-knuckle slugfest is the best we can expect. 

Last year, you might remember, Biden challenged Trump to a push-up contest. He was joking, although with Biden you’re never quite sure. Nevertheless, I think it’s a fine idea. 

A winner-take-all “Feats of Strength” on a lighted stage, featuring two senior citizens running for president. Who would win? 

America. Yes, America.

Rich Manieri is a Philadelphia-born journalist and author. He is currently a professor of journalism at Asbury University in Kentucky. You can reach him at