The most frustrating aspect of the first presidential debate was the commentary that followed.
Hillary Clinton was criticized for being “over-prepared.” Donald Trump trumpeted that his microphone didn’t work. He reiterated his self-congratulatory theme that he didn’t mention Bill Clinton’s marital “indiscretions” because it wouldn’t have been “nice.”
It was so very middle school.
There was a smart girl in your class. She was nice, she was friendly, and she was somehow removed from the daily dramas of school bus seatmates and check-the-box notes slipped into lockers. She wore glasses because she needed them. She seemed constantly absorbed in thought, but she could snap to at any moment when called upon in class. Her answers were always correct, and impressive.
She took science labs seriously. She studied for the weekly social studies quiz. She even paid attention in music. She didn’t pretend not to care, because her caring was too genuine.
You found ways to get by. You talked on the phone, went to soccer games, hosted sleepovers. You scratched out passable homework responses during lunch. You bragged about cramming for a test five minutes before it was administered.
You laughed at the smart girl. You scoffed when she scored the highest marks, again. You told yourself she was weird for placing her priorities on studying. Sometimes, you even pretended out loud that she had some unfair advantage over you, even though you knew that her only advantage was effort.
Then you grew up.
You realized that begrudging the success of someone who works for it reflects poorly on you, not her. You realized how transparent your whining really sounds. You realized that making excuses is a sign of laziness.
You remembered the poster your mother had hung in the laundry room, the one that embarrassed you when your friends noticed it. The poster read “Triumph is ‘umph’ added to ‘try.’” Now you wonder if you can buy that poster for yourself.
You gained a sincere respect for the successful people you know, whatever the field. The Grammy winner who still takes vocal lessons. The entrepreneur who is the first to arrive at the office. The janitor who put three children through college by teaching himself how to invest wisely in the stock market. You agree: they got where they are because they deserve it. They deserve it because they worked for it.
Clinton was well-spoken, confident, and largely unflappable during the debate because she put in the work. Whether you agree with her message or not, you could at least identify her message. Whether you appreciated her body language or not, you could at least see that she was in control of it.
If she over-prepared, then she prepared the right amount. A game-winning quarterback studies all the defensive coverages. An appellate lawyer tries to predict all the questions a judge might pose. A vacationer to Maine packs for all weather types. A person who wants to be president of the United States thinks about what she’d say in response to a question when her answer will be delivered to approximately 100 million people.
Trump demeans himself, Clinton, and the very process of growing up when he resorts to a blame-the-equipment, I-pulled-punches defense for his meandering performance. It shows that he can’t take responsibility for his actions and will jump on the most convenient excuse at his disposition.
You know, like a teenager.
It attempts to deny Clinton the legitimacy of her performance. No microphone was going to improve the quality of Trump’s interruptions or fix the incomplete sentences he uttered quite audibly. There are few people in the world who don’t know that Bill Clinton cheated on his wife, that his wife stayed married to him anyway, and that she now wants to be president. She was likely as ready for that topic as she was for Trump’s inevitable reference to the 30,000 lost emails. Trump did her no favors.
Perhaps worst of all, Trump’s “dog-ate-my-homework” tactics implicate adulthood more generally. They show that not everyone grows up. They show that some grown men still confuse bullying with authority, braggadocio with substance, and not caring with superiority.