The first debate between US President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is played on a TV in West Hollywood, California, on September 29, 2020. Photo: Mario Tama / Getty, AFP

No doubt calming the pre-debate jitters of many Americans who support him, Joe Biden has demonstrated that he will not let former pro-wrestling promoter Donald Trump use ring bombast and trash talk to shove him around.

If you can call it a debate – Trump clearly was determined to make it an insults fest from the start, and substance was not the event’s major feature – the former vice president was the clear winner of the session held Tuesday night US time in Cleveland, Ohio.

Calm and cool and crisp for most of the 90-minute debate, Biden not only held his own in the abuse department; he also found time to come across as presidential – a candidate with a vision.

Although Biden occasionally showed lack of fluency, perhaps related to the childhood stuttering problem that he has mostly overcome, Trump managed to get to him seriously on only a couple of occasions.

One Biden error after he’d fended off early efforts to revive questions about his younger son Hunter’s business dealings in China and the Ukraine was to give the president another opening late in the debate by pointing to the military service in Iraq of Beau Biden, his now deceased older son.

Trump of course didn’t want to keep the focus on reports that he had referred to military volunteers as suckers and losers. He grabbed that chance and turned the subject back to Hunter, Ukraine and China.

That probably wasn’t a terribly consequential error, but Biden’s advisers should have prepared him to use the “suckers” line of attack in the context of not only military service but also tax paying. (They must not have been reading my Facebook page, where I had posted advice yesterday to double-barrel the sucker talk.)

The other issue where his preparation left Biden conspicuously open was law and order. Early in the debate, when clarifying differences between his position on another issue versus the position of members of his Democratic Party’s left wing, he said (a la Charles DeGaulle and France) that, thanks to the party’s nomination, “I am the Democratic Party.”

Trump came back to that remark when he demanded to know whether Biden had phoned to admonish the mayors of cities where Black Lives Matter protests had boiled up into violence. Biden replied that he hadn’t done so because he’s not currently an elected official – a bit of a contradiction, as Trump pointed out.

Biden went on to talk about his support for law and order, but Trump in response listed some of the police organizations that support his own candidacy and demanded to know the name of a single such group supporting Biden. Biden was at a loss for words. He probably didn’t win many law enforcement votes during the debate, although he was clear enough on his opposition to violent protests. 

‘This clown’

As for Trump’s failings, start with appearance and demeanor. The president, whom Biden at one point referred to as “this clown,” did look more clownish than usual. His nose, cheeks and chin bulged cartoonishly under what appeared to be an extra layer of orange makeup, glistening with perspiration.

He may not have slept well since the weekend, when the New York Times started revealing his leaked tax return information in devastating daily doses. (If he was disturbed, he’s beginning to receive his just deserts in view of the stress he’s been inflicting on me and other Americans by keeping alive the danger we may be subjected to four more years of Neroesque rule.)

Although the Times had reported Trump’s business expense deduction of $70,000 for hair styling sessions, his pompadour hung down almost to his eyebrows. His suit seemed ill-fitting or poorly pressed. Perhaps he’d worn it all night while pacing and muttering. Perhaps he’d gained weight recently from munching nervously on McDonald’s hamburgers.

Candidates have had to pay particular attention to appearance in such circumstances ever since Richard Nixon – his five o’clock shadow and beads of perspiration revealed in the unforgiving, but up to then unfamiliar, lighting – faced a cool John F. Kennedy in 1960 for the first televised debate between US presidential nominees.

Fox News’s Chris Wallace, the tough and fair moderator of Tuesday’s debate, had to keep calling Trump down for interrupting Biden. At one time Wallace reemphasized that both campaigns had agreed to the rules but, as he complained to the president, “Frankly, you’ve been doing more interrupting.”

‘Proud Boys, stand by’

It seems a pretty good guess that Trump did close to nothing to change the minds of the majority of American voters who, polls say, disapprove of his stewardship and oppose his reelection. He was totally being Trump, and did not manage to – or appear even to try very hard to – transcend the crass real estate developer/con artist persona that appeals to his base but is repellent to others.

The line that perfectly told any countrymen who didn’t know already who he is and what he values came when Biden contrasted Trump’s huge, crowded rallies, with few face masks, to the Democrat’s own small, socially distanced and masked occasions.

“If you could get the crowds, you’d do the same,” Trump shot back, with no hint he understood that his words confirmed the Biden charge that the president cares more about what benefits him, personally, than about Covid-19’s health threat to hundreds of millions of Americans.

Asked if he condemned white supremacists, and armed right-wing militias such as the Proud Boys group, Trump gave a reply that was more approval and incitement than caution: “Proud Boys – stand back and stand by.”

This first debate didn’t get much into foreign policy – presumably that will be mentioned, at least, in the second or third debate. But regarding domestic policy including handling the coronavirus, the economy and race relations, which were the main topics addressed, a Biden comment to Trump late in the evening hangs in the air:

“You’re the worst president that Americans ever had.”

Bradley K. Martin, after watching the 1952 Democratic and Republican conventions gavel-to-gavel on his Georgia family’s new TV set, went on to a news career that’s been spent mostly in Asia.