This presidential campaign has been so tabloid and downright strange that I didn’t think I could be stunned by anything I saw or heard in these closing weeks.
And then I turned to CNN at 7:57 tonight for the start of the debate, and the camera showed me three women sitting in the first row of the audience section who allege that they were either sexually harassed, assaulted or raped by Bill Clinton, the former president of the United States.
And there was Clinton sitting in another part of the hall looking as profoundly uncomfortable as I can ever remember seeing him look on TV.
What an image of where this presidential election has gone. And what a way to open the second debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton - against a backdrop not just of the sexual history of Bill Clinton but a 48-hour media firestorm surrounding a shocking videotape of Trump in 2005 talking about how he sexually assaults women.
Is this really who we are and the kind of national conversation about the presidency that we want to have?
It seems to be the only one we’ve got – and are likely to get between now and Nov. 8.
The 90-minute debate was pretty remarkable in its own right with Trump telling Clinton if he’s elected he’s going to appoint a special prosecutor and put her in jail for destroying 33,000 emails. I’ve never seen one candidate threaten another with jail that way.
Plus, there was the drama of Trump fighting for his life. In the wake of the release of that videotape Friday, Trump’s campaign has been reeling with senators, U.S. representatives and GOP insiders jumping ship.
Right from the start, it was clear that Trump was taking off the gloves, because he had nothing to lose. Clinton, meanwhile, was walking around the stage in the early going looking like she felt as if she was about to throw a knockout punch.
Clinton never managed to land such a punch.
Overall, she did OK. In fact, she had some good, solid moments. One of the more important ones came in connection with the tape. After Trump said the words on the tape did not represent who he really was, she counterpunched hard, saying, the tape “represents exactly who he is.” And she started chronicling all the ugly things he has said about women. Again, she came prepared with a near-perfect statement for the big issue of the moment.
But she was not as consistently strong as she was in the first debate where she clearly won and, in the process, pretty much wiped up the floor with Trump. In terms of body language, in that first debate, she was the alpha who had him on his heels. Tonight, she seemed to be far more on the defensive once he managed to move the debate off the 11-year-old tape.
And don’t blame the moderators for not forcing Trump to deal with it properly. Anderson Cooper asked Trump pointblank if he understood that his claims on the tape that he kissed and groped women without their consent was sexual assault.
When Trump tried to fudge his answer by saying it was just “locker-room talk,” Cooper pressed him to clarify whether he was now saying he did or did not assault women the way he said he did on the tape.
For what it is worth, Trump said he did not.
Trump had some good moments, too. ABC’s Martha Raddatz used a question gathered via social media to quiz Clinton on a passage from one of the high-priced speeches she gave, which were Wiki-leaked last week. Her words appeared to show her touting the need for politicians to have both a public and a private position on certain issues of state.
“Are you saying it’s acceptable for a politicians to be two-faced?” Raddatz asked quoting the question a citizen posed.
Clinton offered a muddy answer, saying the context involved her being in a “master class” about a film on Lincoln and that she had been praising Abraham Lincoln for the strategy he allegedly used to get the 13th Amendment passed.
It sounded like pure obfuscation, and Trump cut right through it with: “She lied and now she’s blaming it on the late, great Abraham Lincoln. I never heard that one. Honest Abe never lied. That’s the big difference between you and him.”
But Trump never took her out either. And his body language is going to be a morning-after issue.
The town-hall format allows candidates to walk around the stage while they answer, and he spent a lot of time walking toward her and closing the space between them. It did make him seem less defensive than in the first debate. But I suspect many women are going to see that as an attempt to physically intimidate Clinton. It might even look like stalking to some, given his ugly, misogynistic comments on that tape.
The debate was definitely “WWE Raw” by the standards of most presidential debates.
But what dominates the memory of it for me is that tableau of Juanita Broaddrick, who claims Bill Clinton raped her in 1978, alongside Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones. Wiley, a former White House aide, says Clinton sexually assaulted her in 1993, while Jones says she was sexually harassed by Clinton in 1991. Trump brought them to the debate as his guests.
Seeing the trio sitting there looking down on Bill Clinton, it reminded me of ancient Greek theater: the ghosts of someone’s past come to sit as a chorus in public judgment.
If it didn’t have an effect on either of the Clintons, it certainly did on me.
I had never seen anything like that on TV in a presidential election. And I hope I never do again.