Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Recently we were treated to the very worst presidential political debate, in which a moderator found himself unable to contain the appalling behavior of a sitting president, whom we now know was already ill with a contagious disease his own administration had failed to properly contain. The president conveniently arrived too late in the day to be tested, after having been in close quarters with one of his senior aides who was already visibly ill with COVID. The president then spewed vitriol and virus across an open stage, while his family and staff refused to wear the masks that they had agreed to wear, even after being directly asked to do so by a physician at the debate.

Which, of course, brings me to the Lincoln-Douglas debates …

I have often written about civility, and more specifically the lack of it, in American politics and, frankly, in American society today. But the first (and now likely last) presidential debate of the 2020 campaign season clearly demonstrated the president’s lack of empathy, compassion, interest or even basic concern regarding the health of the American people, from both COVID and other ills. He refused to denounce white supremacy (a slam dunk for any decent person) and blew his dog whistle of fear and loathing to his core supporters. His behavior set a new low in presidential debates that one would hope will never be equaled and which has no real precedent in the past.

You see what I did there? I bet you thought I was going to talk about the Lincoln-Douglas debates as a contrast to the Trump-Biden debate. But that comparison can’t really be made, for several reasons. First, the debates between old Abe and Stephen Douglas were not debates, but rather were a series of seven appearances wherein the candidates took turns speaking. And when I say speaking, I mean speaking, in that the first candidate (they alternated who went first) would give a talk for an hour! The other guy would then get a full hour and a half to rebut, and then the first guy would get a final half-hour. When you add that up… carry the one… you get at least three hours of political speeches. There was no moderator, no interrupting or back and forth and no questions being asked. These debates, such as they were, were long and not as civil as you might think. Remember that these debates happened in 1858, and tensions were quite high, and a good bit of invective was thrown around by both candidates. Yet why do I score the Trump-Biden debate as the worst ever? Well, that is because the Lincoln-Douglas debates were not about the presidency, but rather when both men were running for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois already held by Douglas. Oh, and Lincoln lost.

Way back in 2017 I wrote about what I called the brilliance of Donald Trump. I argued that Trump brilliantly maintains that the media are against him while all the time he actually has the media rather cowed and intimidated into not really doing their job anymore. Recent events confirm this view. You may have noted that after Trump was taken to Walter Reed, Twitter announced that it would not allow any posts in which anyone wished for Trump’s death. I have free speech issues with that policy, but Twitter is a private company, so they can do that if they want. But what I found really interesting was that Twitter did not ban the same type of posts when taking about “the Squad” of four progressive Democratic women in the U.S. House. Once again, Trump’s team wins the media battle while complaining through crocodile tears about the ill wishes toward the president.

As we have a Trump junior as our junior senator here in Colorado, it is interesting to see what Cory Gardner has learned at the feet of his master in the White House. If you watch TV for more than about two minutes, you will come across an advertisement by Gardner attacking John Hickenlooper. From the context, you’d think that Hick was running a massive crime family (which might…let me think of an outlandish example…get special patents from China, run a fake university, sell bad steaks and ties, and get foreign countries and the U.S. Secret Service to put money in their pockets by staying in family-owned hotels). 

If you look at Hick’s mistakes (which he should have thought about more carefully) you’ll see that he made some slight errors of judgment in terms of rides in cars and planes and a couple of dinners. Mistakes to be sure, but from the Gardner ads, you’d think Hick was corrupt to Trumpian levels, which is nonsense. Hick’s ads, by contrast, mostly talk about the good stuff he got done as governor.

Many years ago, Alexander Hamilton wrote about the most unprincipled man of his era, Aaron Burr. Hamilton wrote of Burr, “He is for or against nothing but that suits his own interests and ambitions. … If there is an embryo Caesar in America, ‘tis Burr.”  As we think about Donald Trump and his businesses, his taxes, his lack of concern for regular folks, I am driven to conclude that another Aaron Burr walks again among us today. And sadly, he also walks the halls of the White House. More than two centuries ago Americans were wise enough to toss Burr on the ash heap of history. Come next election day, we will see if they can do it again.

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

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