Voters may not have realized it and neither did my colleagues in the campaign cognoscenti. But last Thursday night, we started out watching a couple of ho-hum presidential candidate town hall events — and ended up witnessing a de facto presidential debate that may have decided the 2020 election.
Those so-called dueling town hall events came about because of a bizarre tag-teaming of two of America’s most famous news-making peacocks: President Donald Trump and NBC News. After Trump refused to participate in a virtual second debate with Democrat Joe Biden (candidates in separate rooms in the name of COVID-19 safety), NBC shamefully agreed to sponsor a town hall that would run simultaneously with ABC’s Biden town hall Thursday night.
But it all turned out to become something far more significant than any of us expected. Because what Americans saw that night may well have helped voters who were undecided or unsure make up their minds.
Last Thursday night, the Joe Biden I watched and heard was calmer, more controlled, more convincing and seemed more capable than I have ever heard him before in a public campaign event. For years I had seen him get famously revved up and race through his responses, resulting in disjoined answers that are less impressive than he is in private.
In his socially distanced town hall event in Philadelphia’s mostly empty National Constitution Center, he spoke conversationally with each questioner and discussed details for solving complex problems ranging from race to domestic and global policies.
As Biden spoke, all of us kept hearing in our mind’s ear Trump’s familiar name-calling ridiculing of Biden. And Thursday night we finally could see and hear (perhaps for the first time!) that there was nothing “Sleepy” about Joe. The comparison couldn’t have been clearer in a real debate: Biden was displaying a mastery of details and insights that is far beyond Trump’s capability.
In Miami, President Trump’s town hall event presented a predictably stark contrast. He was once again a fount of false statements, deceptions and exaggerations. He repeatedly refused to give direct answers to the questions of NBC News moderator Savannah Guthrie, who performed with professionalism and just plain guts. She was prepared and informed — but of course her task was impossible. Trump refused to answer questions about when he last tested negatively for COVID-19. Why? Because the truth would probably show he willfully risked infecting others. Trump repeatedly referred to a survey that showed 85% of mask-wearers caught COVID-19 — but that’s flat-out false! The survey merely noted that when mask-wearers went to bars and restaurants (and removed their masks) they too were infected.
Back to Biden: One of the former veep’s finest segments came when he was confronted, quite fairly, by a young Black man named Cedric Humphrey, who referred to a time when Biden had mindlessly blurted to a Black radio personality “you ain’t Black!” Thursday night, Humphrey noted that many young Black Americans, including himself, may not vote at all.
“So, my question for you then is, besides “You ain’t Black,” what do you have to say to young Black voters who see voting for you as further participation in a system that continually fails to protect them?” Humphrey asked.
Biden noted it is a question of, “Am I worthy of your vote? Can I earn your vote?” And he then launched into a very long response about the many things that we need to do to make the system fairer for Black people. It is more than just making the criminal justice system “fair and … more decent,” he said. “We have to be able to put Black Americans in a position to be able to gain wealth, generate wealth …” He then wove through proposals that began with early education, went through college, and then got to helping Black entrepreneurs get startup funding as easily as white people do. He cited scores of studies and stats and concluded: “ … if you’re going to hang out afterward, I’ll tell you more.”
And after the town hall meeting, as the network talking heads began doing what we do, the cameras continued to focus on Biden. He had no mic. But we watched him walk over to maybe a dozen audience members, including Humphrey. For more than a half-hour, as TV’s punditry droned on, America watched that silent screen scene of Biden patiently explaining in that empty silent theater. That night Humphrey said he’s voting for Biden.
We may have just witnessed the longest and (influentially) loudest sound of silence in American presidential history.