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Fri, Jan. 24

Column: The question of respect

I left the University of Southern California forum where I watched the debate Monday night with an overwhelming sense of unease. And I’ve been trying to figure out why.

I’ve been to debates where my candidate did great and debates where my candidate did not; I’ve been to debates where I can’t even remember what city I was in, much less what anybody said. I would have to say that most debates don’t move numbers or decide elections, no matter how big a deal the media makes of them, because most people leave supporting the same candidate they supported coming in.

I wrote a book called “The Case for Hillary Clinton” 10 years ago. I guess you might call me an “early adopter.” I thought she did an excellent job on Monday: She was well-prepared and articulate, which everyone expects and she gets little credit for, but also appeared warm, smiling and nice – which she actually is, but often doesn’t seem to be. If you went into the debate supporting Clinton, you left with a smile.

And Donald Trump? Trump was Trump. He got a small loan of $14 million (what would that be in today’s dollars? I wonder) to start a business. Is that small? He’ll release his taxes someday. He’ll give folks like himself a big tax cut that will boost the economy. Rosie O’Donnell is a “pig.”

Even if you’ve never seen a single episode of “The Apprentice,” just from watching the debate you can understand why the Donald has been the most popular and enduring star in reality television, why he would even presume to think he could trademark as his own the expression “You’re fired.” His favorite.

It wasn’t just that he made factual mistakes on Monday. Anyone can do that. What bothered me is that he didn’t care, not one bit.

It’s now been more than 20 years since I got an emergency call one day from the director of the Reagan Library asking if I could please pinch hit for a missing panelist on a program the next day to be headlined by the new speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. I immediately agreed. I remembered the close relationship President Reagan had with my congressman, former Speaker Tip O’Neill. Those were the days when Republicans and Democrats fought all day and then raised a glass together at night. Those were the days when politics was fun, and executions and public humiliations of candidates and staff were not daily events. People even actually talked about policy. And there was this idea we all seemed to share about respect for the presidency.

Sitting on the panel that day, as the lone woman and the lone Democrat, I was asked to compare then-President Bill Clinton, who had exactly one supporter in the room (me), with Ronald Reagan. So I went to what I considered the safest space in our land: respect for the presidency. I talked about the fact that I did not agree with President Reagan on many issues, but I respected him as president and believed such respect to be an essential element of our democracy, one that I hoped we could share in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Nancy Reagan, one of the most gracious ladies I have met, sitting in the front row, led the applause of the dignitaries joining her there. Everyone else in the room booed me. Loudly. On C-SPAN, no less. I couldn’t believe it. Nancy Reagan sent me flowers and apologized.

No one apologized for Trump’s disrespect Monday night. It wasn’t what he got wrong or didn’t know or wouldn’t do. It was that he very clearly didn’t take the debate the least bit seriously. He made fun of his rival for preparing. She turned it on him, but my stomach still turned.

They may not decide elections – although on occasion they do – but televised presidential debates have been a fundamental aspect of our democracy for the last half-century. To give them less attention than the taping of an “Apprentice” episode betrays a lack of respect that goes to the core of Trump’s character.

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