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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 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?" -- Donald Trump came up with a response that exploded the Internet: a pre-debate press conference in which of three of Bill Clinton's old accusers sat at a table along with the child victim of a rape whose alleged attacker was once defended by Hlllary 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."

Whatever happened to Broaddrick, there was no comparison about who was making an effort to behave in a way that was "presidential."

Trump's panel of accusers was meant to unnerve Clinton but she was, as she was last time, almost smooth as glass. She went on too long sometimes, interjected a couple times when she desperately 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, for the most obvious reasons, wants this nightmare to end.

Its way of responding to Trump's upside down version of "High Noon" -- where revealed tape of puerile braggadocio on a bus with Billy Bush made all 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 everyone's agreement 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 was a different story.

Having to watch this stuff is ghastly. There are things people just don't want presidential candidates to say. Or do. There are ways we don't want them to act.

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

The president who has haunted me throughout the entire campaign season was Dwight David Eisenhower. He'd have been a near-sure loser of any debate with 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."

And yet 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 everyone.

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 just "great" take care of itself.

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 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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