Two generations ago, Richard Nixon sweated his way to losing the first ever presidential debate on television to a young, fit and cool John F Kennedy.
It was the kind of rookie mistake you could put down to the newness of TV.
So how do you explain – 60 years later – the drenching sweat that trickled down the face of the reality TV star who is now living inside the White House?
Of the very few things Donald Trump is supposed to know in any modicum of detail, TV sits right at the tippity-top. There are more historic crises challenging his presidency than there are cable news channels, but that doesn’t stop him tweeting about all the TV he’s watching all day.
For a man who still measures his manhood by his own TV ratings, it was a curious choice to sit outside in the humid steamer of a Washington summer, caked in his glowing orange make-up, to field the pesky questions of the best interviewer on Fox News.
“Hot enough for you here, Mr President?” asked Chris Wallace.
“It’s hot,” said Trump. “It’s about, well, sort of almost record-breaking stuff.”
“You know, we wanted to do it inside,” replied Wallace. “This is your choice.”
Trump has made so many more consequential blunders than failing to prepare for his double-sided grilling by the weather and Wallace. But this chargrilled interview laid bare how the Wicked Wizard of the West Wing is melting before our eyes.
This chargrilled interview laid bare how the Wicked Wizard of the West Wing is melting before our eyes
For four years we have been told that populist leaders – especially this one – are peerless showmen: experts not in government but in hijacking the public attention.
His pithy nicknames and catchphrases supposedly destroyed his rivals in 2016. They came up with 12-point plans while he was going to make America great again. He threatened North Korea with his big nuclear button, then fell in love with the North Korean leader in a summit staged just for the cameras.
But now his repeated attempts to smear Joe Biden have flopped and the great showman is reportedly asking aides if he should try to find another nickname.
With every new poll showing him losing the election, both nationally and in all the battleground states, Trump’s despair dribbled through all his pores on Sunday’s interview.
When asked if Biden was senile, Trump answered with the kind of half-baked half-thoughts of a mind cooking slowly in the heat of the presidency. “I’d say he’s not competent to be president,” he warmed up. “To be president, you have to be sharp and tough and so many other things.”
What are these so many other things, pray tell?
“He doesn’t even come out of his basement. They think, ‘Oh this is a great campaign.’ So he goes in.”
It wasn’t clear who they were or what he was going into. But it seemed totally clear to our sharp and tough president, who is also so many other things.
“I’ll then make a speech. It’ll be a great speech. And some young guy starts writing, ‘Vice President Biden said this, this, this.’ He didn’t say it. Joe doesn’t know he’s alive, OK? He doesn’t know he’s alive.”
It may be tempting to blame all of this on the young guy whose writing clearly leaves a lot to be desired.
But it’s the old guy in the Oval we should be worried about. He doesn’t know he’s dying out there.
There have been some clues, of course. There was the disastrous riot of a photo op with a pretty bible and a ton of tear gas. There was the Tulsa rally for a million people who failed to show up. There was that weird Mount Rushmore speech about the fascists who say mean things about racists.
Then again, as Chris Wallace pointed out, there are the polls that show this desperate act isn’t working. And there’s all the endless video of our sharp and tough president predicting the pandemic would just disappear, like a miracle, with a little disinfectant injected inside. Or perhaps some bright light.
“I’ll be right eventually,” Trump insisted when confronted with his own cringe-inducing comments about the coronavirus. “I will be right eventually. You know I said, ‘It’s going to disappear.’ I’ll say it again.”
They say a stopped clock is right twice a day. But this broken timepiece will only be happy when all the clocks have stopped.
At this point in Trump’s Twilight Zone, the audience has a good sense of the plot twists that lie ahead in the next four months. It consists of as much concocted chaos as humanly possible.
There will be terrorist protesters in every major city, whisked off the streets by Trump’s paramilitaries in rented minivans. Thank goodness we have machine-gun-toting goons to protect us from all that graffiti.
There will be caravans of coronavirus-filled immigrants scaling the freshly-painted border wall, which has done such a fantastic job of protecting us all from the pandemic.
After Nixon sweated his way to defeat against Kennedy, he returned to win the presidency eight years later with a law and order campaign that promised to shut down civil rights protests and stop enforcing civil rights laws.
Our Trumpified version of Tricky Dick is a little less subtle than the original.
He claimed that people flying the confederate flag were “not talking about racism”. But when asked about removing the names of confederate generals from US military bases, Trump could only think about race. And some weird stuff about a couple of world wars.
“We’re going to name it after the Rev Al Sharpton? What are you going to name it, Chris? Tell me what you’re going to name it,” Trump sputtered.
“So there’s a whole thing here. We won two world wars, two world wars, beautiful world wars that were vicious and horrible. And we won them out of Fort Bragg. We won out of all of these forts that now they want to throw those names away.”
Ah yes, those beautiful world wars. So vicious and horrible. All at the same time. Like the man says, there is indeed a whole thing here.
“Let Biden sit through an interview like this,” Trump declared at another point. “He’ll be on the ground crying for mommy. He’ll say, ‘Mommy, mommy, please take me home.’”
In his own man-childish way, Trump thought he was proving his point about senility and sharpness and toughness. And so many other things.
But with every new interview, it sounds like he’s just asking his mommy to please take him home.