Comment: Feeling queasy watching the Clinton-Trump debate

I grew up in the US, was politically socialized in the US, and was imbued with a certain degree of reverence – yes, reverence – for its political system.

October 10, 2016 16:46
3 minute read.
US debate

Republican US presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton shake hands at the conclusion of their presidential town hall debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, US, October 9, 2016. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Domestic squabbles played out in public make me feel uncomfortable.

I feel uneasy if I’m out and see a husband and wife arguing loudly, or if I see a father or mother publicly shout or otherwise discipline his or her children. These are things better left behind closed doors.

If it happens in the public square where I happen to be situated, I feel like an invader of someone else’s privacy. I feel uneasy, want it to end, turn my head, feel embarrassed for those involved.

Oddly, that’s how I felt watching the first part of Sunday night’s debate between US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

That was the part of the debate that dealt with Trump’s “locker room” talk released in a video two nights before, a video featuring language I was too embarrassed to repeat to my own grown children.

It was the part of the debate where Clinton chronicled some of the insults Trump hurled during the campaign that she bluntly said rendered him unfit to be president, and said his crass words from the video reflected perfectly who he really was.

It was the part of the debate where Trump said there had never been anybody in the history of US politics more abusive to women than Hillary’s husband Bill Clinton. The camera focused in on Bill, then on Hillary, and then back on Bill.

I didn’t want to watch; it actually was physically uncomfortable.

It also saddened me.

It saddened me to think that this was the level to which political discourse in the US had sunk.

I grew up in the US, was politically socialized in the US, and was imbued with a certain degree of reverence – yes, reverence – for its political system. To this day, I remain somewhat in awe whenever I have the opportunity to walk around Washington.

Yes, I had my bar mitzva just as the Watergate saga was unfolding, so I realized early on that the system was not perfect. But I also was taught – and understood – that with all its flaws, the US system was still the best political system in the world.

There was always an awesome order, formality and dignity to the system. There was a dignity to the office of president and to those running for president.

The reverence I felt was nurtured by pomp, ceremony and symbolism, and by people of gravitas in the media like Walter Cronkite – he of the deep tones and distinct rhythm in his voice – who spoke of the office of president and those who filled it with respect, even if those holding the office, people like Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson, could be crass and vulgar in their own right.

The respect and reverence I held was shared by many of my generation and – I soon found out – many Israelis.

Israel’s political culture was a zoo.

This was what I often heard after first coming here 35 years ago. It was neither predictable, orderly, logical nor dignified like that in America.

Whenever politicians insulted each other here, whenever they shouted each other down or the political system let down the citizens, the refrain was always that something like this could never happen in the US and that Israel should aspire in its politics and political campaigns to be more like America.

When it came to politics, the US was seen as a shining beacon on the hill. Watching Sunday’s debate, however, I couldn’t help bemoaning what had become of that beacon – temporarily, I hope.

No longer can we in Israel look to America’s presidential campaigns and say that the weightiness, seriousness, civility and dignity of those campaigns is what we want here, because in this campaign, as reflected in Sunday’s debate, there is precious little weightiness, seriousness, civility or dignity.

Patrice Brock, who gave the first question from the audience on Sunday evening, asked the candidates whether they thought they were “modeling appropriate and positive behavior for today’s youth.”

Great question, though one not really answered by either candidate.

But Brock could have widened her query and put a more global spin on it. She could have asked: “Do you feel you’re modeling appropriate and positive political behavior for countries looking to the US as an example of how politics is supposed to work?” It is unlikely that she would have received a direct answer to that question, either. But none was really needed. Like the question she did ask, everyone already knew the answer.

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