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The most appalling and dramatic presidential debate we've ever seen

Michelle Obama was the evening's winner as the most presidential participant.

And she wasn't even there. Only her words were, as quoted by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton: "When they go low, you go high."

The loser was the American public, which was forced to look at a profoundly ugly mirror from the most appalling - but in many ways most dramatic - presidential debate we've ever seen.

In answer to Chubby Checker's immortal question "How low can you go?" Republican nominee Donald Trump came up with a response Sunday that exploded the Internet.

Two days after the Washington Post shared with the world an audio recording of Trump bragging about groping women, he held a pre-debate news conference in which  three of Bill Clinton's long-ago accusers sat at a table, along with the child victim of a rape whose alleged attacker was once defended by Hillary Clinton as a court-appointed attorney.

Her name was Kathy Shelton. The other women were Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broaddrick who told a small group of reporters "Mr. Trump may have said some bad words, but Bill Clinton raped me and Hillary Clinton threatened me. I don't think there's any comparison."

Kathleen Willey, from left, Juanita Broaddrick, and Kathy Shelton sit in the audience ahead of the second U.S. presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis. (Bloomberg photo by Daniel Acker)

Kathleen Willey, from left, Juanita Broaddrick, and Kathy Shelton sit in the audience ahead of the second U.S. presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis. (Bloomberg photo by Daniel Acker)

Trump's panel of accusers was meant to unnerve Clinton during the debate, but she was almost smooth as glass. She went on too long sometimes, interjected a couple of times when she wanted a fact check but she tried to be logical and keep a civil tone.

Not so Trump, who at one point, characterized the evening as being "one on three" i.e. Trump vs. Clinton and moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz.

Or, as he's been telling us all along, the Lone Ranger vs. the candidate, the media and the Establishment.

He has never been entirely wrong about the latter. The American Establishment has made it clear that Trump's candidacy is a national nightmare that only got worse with the revelation of his comments in 2005.

Its way of responding to Trump's upside down version of "High Noon" - where a revealed tape of puerile braggadocio on a bus with Billy Bush made at least half of America groan in disgust - was to drop even more prominent Republicans from Trump's camp.

Trump apologized for the tone, but as he did all weekend, counted on the belief that it was just "locker room talk." Which, of course, it is, but only if the locker room is full of 15-year old boys bragging about things they've never done. Coming from a 59-year old man with a pregnant wife, it became a different story.

Having to watch this stuff on television is ghastly. There are things people just don't want presidential candidates to say. Or do.

We want them to be better than we are, not worse in public than we've ever been.

The president who has haunted me throughout the campaign season, and particularly the debates, was Dwight D. Eisenhower. He would have been a near-sure loser of any debate with two-time opponent Adali Stevenson, a renowned wit and eloquent intellectual. Ike was notoriously bad at thinking on his feet. His thinking was jumbled, his wit was nonexistent. And yet when his exact opposite - handsome, witty, intellectual, articulate John F. Kennedy - moved into the Oval Office, it eventually began to occur to people that Eisenhower had been a decent president after all, not just, as Gore Vidal used to say, a "great golfer."

Nothing at all that made him good would have been visible in a debate. Luckily, he had been the commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during the war. No one questions the leadership capacities of triumphant five star generals.

Any debate at all, even a good one, would have disserved Eisenhower.

What we saw Sunday night disserved the country. It was something close to the worst possible.

If American presidential debates used to be "great" - I don't think they were - it would be nice if we could make them decent again and let "great" take care of itself.

The truth is that the tone of our democracy is the biggest loser of all.

It was the late media critic and theorist Neil Postman who had our number back in 1985 when he wrote a book called "Amusing Ourselves to Death."

Sunday's debate, and the days leading up to it were absolutely riveting. Ratings soared. The Internet exploded. Moderators proved their mettle.

And all the decency and maturity that we might crave in our public life lies wounded and bleeding.

If it isn't already dead.




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