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Column / L.Ian MacDonald

Sunday’s presidential debate: You’re only as bad as your last bad show

In the race to the bottom campaign of the U.S. presidential campaign, Sunday night’s town hall debate was a reminder that you’re only as bad as your last bad show.

After spending the previous 48 hours fending off a torch-wielding Republican mob demanding his head following the revelation of an entirely characteristic but presidentially unprecedented exchange about his Neanderthal notions of foreplay, Donald Trump had a good night simply by showing up and not lunging at anyone’s crotch.

The American presidential campaign has become a race as to whether the media destroy Trump or he does it to himself first. It’s close, but Trump’s ahead, thanks to his own words from 2005 about his perfunctory seduction technique — “grab ’em by the pussy” — and once telling talk-radio host Howard Stern it was okay to call his own daughter, Ivanka, “a piece of ass.”

A firestorm such as never before erupted last Friday, when the Washington Post put up outtakes from an 11-year-old conversation between Trump and now Today show co-host Billy Bush, then host of Access Hollywood, while they were riding on the show’s bus on a Hollywood studio lot where “The Donald” was to do a cameo on the soap opera Days of Our Lives.

The conversation is off camera as the bus is seen rolling up to the studio, but Trump and Bush are wearing mics and the sound is rolling as the bus makes its way across the lot for his arrival scene.

“I’m automatically attracted to beautiful women, I just start kissing them,” Trump says. “It’s like a magnet. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.”

Bush: “Whatever you want.”

Trump: “Grab ’em by the pussy.”

The bus was to be met by soap star Arianne Zucker, and Trump was certainly looking forward to that.

“I better use some TicTacs just in case I start kissing,” he said, like an adolescent at his first spin-the-bottle party.

The conversation on the bus went into the show’s archives, forgotten until someone gave the tape to the Post last Friday morning. Within hours, it was up on the newspaper’s website, and all hell broke loose.

Both Access Hollywood and Days of Our Lives are NBC properties. Access Hollywood and NBC were also working on the story.

The question is, who had access to the show’s archive, and what was the motive of the Post’s anonymous tipster? And why now, a month before the election, rather than a year ago at the beginning of the Republican primary season?

The fact that it’s essentially a radio conversation, with no on-camera videotape, may yet help save Trump’s skin. But the sound bites fit with Trump’s history of crass and insulting comments about women, their bodies and bodily functions.

Following the first leaders’ debate two weeks ago, Trump attacked former Miss Universe Alicia Machado for being overweight. Hillary Clinton had brought her name up in the debate as an example of Trump’s contemptible behaviour towards women. Trump not only fell into the trap, he did a phoner on Fox TV the next morning calling her “Miss Piggy”. Three days later, he tweeted at 3 a.m. that the former queen of the Trump-owned beauty pageant was a “con” and “disgusting” and invited people to “check out (her) sex tape”.

It was the sort of unprovoked rant, in the middle of the night, that makes you wonder about Trump having his finger on the nuclear button.

His conversation with Billy Bush is the sort of thing that used to be heard in football dressing rooms—“locker room banter” as Trump put it in his apology — but, A) never heard from a nominee for president of the United States, and B) he wasn’t in a locker room.

In the run-up to Sunday night’s debate, the Access Hollywood quotes utterly dominated the news cycle. The damage control from the Trump campaign included a statement from his wife, Melania. “The words my husband used are unacceptable and offensive to me,” she said. “This does not represent the man that I know. I hope people will accept his apology, as I have, and focus on the important issues facing our nation and the world.”

Issues? The only issue at this point is Trump’s fitness for office, a circumstance that has both saved Hillary Clinton from the rigours of serious testing and robbed the American people of a real debate.

What Trump was revealed to have said Friday was so beyond even Trump’s reality show-skewed pale that by Saturday, his own running mate, Mike Pence, said he was “offended by the words and actions described by Donald Trump” in the Hollywood Access video. “I do not condone his remarks and cannot defend them,” Pence added.

Pence also cancelled an appearance with Trump at a unity rally in Wisconsin that had been scheduled by House Speaker Paul Ryan, who publicly disinvited Trump, saying his was “sickened” by his comments.

“By early (Saturday) evening,” the New York Times reported in its Sunday edition, “no fewer than 35 Republican members of Congress and governors who had not previously ruled out supporting Mr. Trump disavowed his candidacy, an unprecedented desertion by the institutional Republican Party of its own standard-bearer.” One of them was John McCain, the party’s nominee in 2008, whose heroism as a downed Navy pilot in the Vietnam war was once mocked by Trump, and who faces a close contest for his own Arizona Senate seat.

Other than that, Donald, how was the weekend?

Well, he showed up in St. Louis Sunday night with several parties-of-the-second-part in Bill Clinton’s bimbo eruptions, with Hillary alleged to have enabled cover-ups. Trump was inviting them to the debate. Bill was there, too. That was interesting.

When Trump brought that up in the debate, Hillary Clinton wisely declined to go there, but instead went back to Trump’s comments on women, saying, “Yes, this is who Donald Trump is. This is not who we are.” She added: “There’s never been anyone in the history of politics who’s been so abusive to women.” Clinton finds herself in the propitious position of running against a man whose treatment of women makes her husband look restrained.

In keeping with the surreal tone of this entire presidential cycle, the debate also included a threat from Trump to put his Democratic rival “in jail” and the inescapable subtext of the graphic nature of Trump’s lately revealed reference to the female anatomy.

But there were actual exchanges on issues such as Obamacare and immigration, as well as taxes, including Trump’s write-offs, that were quite informative. There was even a discussion about Syria and foreign policy.

Leaving aside his characteristic bombast and bluster in the debate, including habitually calling her a liar, Trump for once held his own with Clinton by at least not looking unprepared or misinformed on issues, which may have bought him a reprieve.

L. Ian MacDonald, Editor of Policy, is the author of five books and served in Washington from 1992-94 as head of public affairs at the Canadian Embassy. lianmacdonald@policymagazine.ca