Last night's "Commander-in-Chief Forum" hosted by Matt Lauer on NBC was deeply disturbing. Hillary Clinton, the candidate of poise and preparation, seemed unprepared to answer the most basic and easily anticipated questions about her emails and her vote for the Iraq War. And Donald Trump? Imagining that man in the Oval Office is like imagining Dame Edna in a swimsuit competition: I just can't get my mind to go there.
The format stunk and, just so, was unflattering to both candidates. Big questions were crammed into too little time, there was insufficient time for follow-up, and this obsession with involving the studio audience only further complicated, and retarded, the proceedings. If "America's Got Talent" can leave it up to the judges, why can't we keep amateur observers out of the business of asking questions at a debate? The shortage of time did, however, produce Clinton's best moment: When she was answering Lauer's question about the Iran nuclear deal, and Lauer tried to cut her off to move to another question, she stopped him, said the issue was complicated and important, and took command of the stage.
Clinton's first eight minutes, all of which were focused on her emails, were painful to watch. She was defensive. She did not really explain the problem. She sounded lawyerly. And, towards the end of the ordeal, she mentioned in passing that when she had to deal with classified information, she used a "wholly separate system," that she was brought to a secure location and communicated there about the secret information. Huh? Why have we not heard this before? If she thought that anything really secret meant going to a special room, then of course she guessed the information on her Blackberry couldn't have been that confidential. If she established that point and then said, "I now know that sometimes, classified or confidential material was also sent to my email. It shouldn't have been sent there and I should not have received it there. But, I associated highly sensitive information with those tents in Iraq or Pakistan, with the special room at the State Department, or the secure phone line to the president." That is a good answer. And I just came up with it on one cup of coffee! Her actual answer was painful.
Similarly, on Iraq, instead of saying that Trump also was in favor of the war, as if his responsibility as a private citizen at the time is anything like hers as a sitting senator, why did she not answer this way: "Our intelligence was wrong, not just ours but that of our allies in Europe and Israel. We knew a U.S. invasion would be destabilizing, but the alternative was not peace and harmony but destabilization as a result of Saddam armed with weapons of mass destruction. That was the choice as we saw it at the time. What I learned, and what both President Bush and President Obama learned, was that we needed better intelligence and, as well, that we needed to devise better ways of asking tough questions of the intelligence community. And, I would say on a bipartisan basis, we have improved both our intelligence and the tough questions we pose to them."
Similarly, why did she make the unambiguous promise not to deploy ground troops in either Iraq or Syria? It undercuts her argument that she is the serious candidate. There are half a dozen scenarios in which the introduction of ground troops might be necessary. She could have said, "I believe that the fight within the Islamic community, between the radicals who defame Islam and the moderates with whom we are allied, this fight is one that America can make worse in countless ways. U.S. ground troops tend to work against our long-term objectives, making our allies look dependent on us, opening them to the charge that they are pawns of the U.S., which does not help them win the hearts and minds of their people. That said, if I thought the security of the United States demanded we send ground troops for a particular mission, I would do it."
The rest of the time, Clinton displayed her mastery of relevant information, her ability to think cogently on her feet. The woman thinks in full paragraphs, and that is certainly something we want in a leader. I kept thinking that for all her inability to articulate a vision for her politics, I would not lose sleep if she was the person in the Situation Room making tough decisions. They might be right or they might be wrong, but they would never be reckless.
As for Donald Trump's performance, it is hard to pick which moment was his worst. As a general matter, he would sometimes offer a single specific item amidst his rhetorical broadsides. Sometimes the specific had little to do with the question he was asked. Sometimes the broadside had little to do with the question he was asked. Trump is a master at sloganeering, and I came away with a better understanding of why he does so well with largely uneducated voters: He is a master at marketing, and at nothing else. His knowledge is stuck at an 11th-grade level or less.
I would not object to a professor of military strategy speaking with great admiration for Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The attack at Inchon was brilliant and it should be studied, as should the assault on Leyte. But, I find it distressing when someone running for president apparently holds MacArthur in such high esteem. Of all the many outstanding things Harry S. Truman did, none compares with his decision to fire MacArthur. The man not only misunderstand politics and foreign policy, he misunderstood the American Constitution and its insistence on civilian control of the military. Trump fails to grasp that. Why, because he saw the movie with Gregory Peck on TMC?
Watching Trump squirm in explaining his firm, repeated conviction that we should have "taken the oil" in Iraq was telling. He refused to back down. He tried to explain what is manifestly an insane idea. He could not answer the question "how" he would do this and, regrettably, on this and at other points, Matt Lauer lacked the tenacity of, say, Chris Matthews, in pressing him for an answer. I hope Team Hillary was taking notes: During the debates, she should simply keep asking how, repeating it as often as necessary, to expose the idiocy of this man's ideas.
In the post-forum commentary, critics focused on the disparaging things Trump said about the leadership of the military, but they missed the real problem with his comments. He said the generals have been "reduced to rubble," that they had achieved their high station through political correctness, and many needed to be fired. The military, like all areas of human life, is not free of internal politics, but it is one of the more obvious meritocracies in our culture, which is one reason it is more racially integrated than other sectors of our society, and political correctness has nothing to do with it. But, the real problem was not just that he insulted people who, unlike him, actually have had to work hard and study and improve their skills to get ahead, but that he thought nothing of smearing the reputation of these men and women who have served our country in order to score a debate point. It was pure narcissism.
There is also something just plain creepy about covering Vladimir Putin with praise while denigrating President Obama. I understand that being nasty about Obama helps Trump unite Republicans, something he needs to do if he is to avoid a blowout in November. I am not so sure praising Putin will go over so well in the Polish neighborhoods in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, or certain retirement communities in Florida, where Trump needs to win and win big.
I would give Clinton the best mark of the night, a gentlewoman's C. Lauer gets a D for failing to press Trump with the same tenacity he displayed against Clinton. And Trump shouldn't get a grade, he should be expelled. I do hope that the moderators for the debate were taking notes and that they will be prepared to do what Lauer did not do, namely, point out when each candidate is saying something that is not true. I think we all know which candidate this will harm more, but the objective of journalism is not balance but truth. Clinton is flawed, but Trump is an embarrassment. That is the truth, and journalists should not shy away from letting viewers and voters see that truth.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]