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    Sunday, July 21, 2024

    The Old Man vs. The Con Man doesn’t make anyone proud

    As voters in November's presidential election, what are we to do after watching the 90-minute debate debacle 10 days ago between The Old Man and The Con Man?

    If there was a chance it could succeed somehow, we could try a write-in campaign for None of the Above and probably get better options. After all, we couldn't do much worse.

    How bad is our choice this time?

    "A defining characteristic of the contest is that voters overall have little or no confidence in either candidate across a range of key traits, including fitness for office, personal ethics and respect for democratic values," the respected Pew Research Center wrote of a presidential survey it conducted this spring. "About two thirds of voters have little or no confidence that Biden is fit to hold office; nearly as many lack confidence in Trump to act ethically."

    And that was before the debate. The percentage of those believing Biden isn't fit to hold office will certainly rise after his June 27 faceplant. However, there's no reason to believe, meanwhile, that Trump's post-debate ethics numbers will improve, especially after he had to be asked three times by the moderator if he'd accept the results of the 2024 election.

    So, the race will come down to another choice between the lesser of two evils. That's what we were faced with in 2016 when we had to choose between Trump and Hillary Clinton and 2020 when it was Round 1 of Trump vs. Biden.

    That's unsettling when you envision either of them as Leader of the Free World for the coming four years. It'll be either the guy who gives narcissists a bad name or the one who can't recite the alphabet without a teleprompter.

    And let's not clutter the issue with talk of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., or any of the other Don Quixotes in the race. Independents Kennedy and Cornel West, Green Party's Jill Stein and Libertarian Chase Oliver are more likely to walk the surface of Pluto on Jan. 20 than be sworn in as president.

    So, how does the most advanced and powerful nation in the history of civilization find itself with such flawed options? Candidates for president need only be 35 years old, born in this country, live here for at least 14 years and be able to raise and/or spend $5,000 to be on the ballot.

    There are four-year intervals, and in a nation of 342 million people there are, conservatively, tens of millions who could legally run for president. And these two are the best we can do?

    Yes, big money and an imperfect nominating process are part of the problem. Equally culpable, however, is mainstream media, which — justifiably — is rarely referred to anymore as the news media because so much of their political "coverage" is laden with opinion and bereft of actual news.

    Much of today's media — particularly electronic — are known not by factual, in-depth, unbiased reporting, but by commentary and entertainment tainted by political bias that is either subtle or, increasingly, conspicuous. Chalk it up to the continued dumbing-down of the electorate, adequately aided by social media.

    Not surprisingly, most media sided with White House protests before the debate that videos showing Biden appearing frail, inattentive or disoriented were somehow doctored or shown out of context — "cheap fakes," according to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. Biden's debate performance exploded that narrative.

    Ronald Reagan was 73 years old when he was elected to a second term as president in 1984. Reagan performed poorly against Democratic nominee Walter Mondale in their first debate. Due to that and other public slips, the media frequently and aggressively questioned his ability to serve during the campaign and through his second term. By then, Reagan had indeed lost a few steps from his prime, but he was nimbler than Fred Astaire then compared to present-day Biden.

    Yet until Biden's poor showing in this debate, the media — save for Fox News and other conservative outlets — have pretty much poo-pooed Biden's deteriorating condition, assigning it scant coverage if any at all.

    After the debate, however, Democrats themselves were in what CNN labeled an "aggressive panic." Even liberal MSNBC, including Biden's former press secretary Jen Psaki, panned his performance. There was no hiding it anymore.

    American voters saw it for themselves, and everyone from CNN analyst Van Jones — who literally professed his love for Biden — to Vice President Kamala Harris, said afterward that Biden had done poorly. Most of the nine members of the CNN debate panel looked and spoke like they were at a wake.

    Conversely, the talking heads at Fox News were practically high-fiving afterward, claiming Biden's performance vindicated their daily questioning of his cognitive health. Fox's conservative panelists gleefully praised his debate performance. Trump may have done better than Biden, but his showing was nothing to write home about either, given his lies, exaggerations and refusal to answer questions he didn't like.

    To reinforce his network's own view, Fox's chief Trump cheerleader Sean Hannity interviewed Republican vice-presidential hopefuls Sens. Marco Rubio, Tim Scott and J.D. Vance and even Trump's daughter-in-law, Lara, in her capacity as co-chair of the Republican National Committee. Trump could have fallen asleep during the debate and gotten five-star reviews from that lineup.

    Why couldn't Hannity have interviewed Republican National Chairman Michael Whatley instead of a member of Trump's own family? And — what? — there were no Democrats available, or was Fox afraid of a different take on it all? So much for "fair and balanced."

    The media need to return to Joe Friday's old directive — "just the facts" — instead of what they're passing off these days as "analysis." There's nothing analytical about many media outlets — be they print, broadcast or even social media — taking sides. More facts and less cheerleading are what voters need these days, lest we keep nominating intellectual and ethical lightweights who argue about who has a lower golf handicap.

    If anyone was fair and balanced in this scenario, it was CNN's moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, who had previously been disdainful of Trump. Conservatives expected them to gang up on the Republican nominee, but both conducted themselves professionally and objectively during the debate, though they drew some criticism for not fact-checking inaccuracies by both candidates.

    Overall, the media of yesteryear — like the coverage they provided — offered up more substance and less bias. David Muir, the ABC News anchor, might be viewed as a hunk, but Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America. Think of the others from his era — David Brinkley, Chet Huntley, Katharine Graham, John Chancellor, Eric Sevareid, Ted Koppel, Ed Bradley, Mike Wallace, Ben Bradlee, Carl Rowan, David Broder and so many more. There aren't as many like them in today's political press corps, and the American news consumer is less informed and less engaged as a result.

    And that, folks, is how we wind up having to choose between The Old Man and The Con Man for President of the United States instead of the likes of Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy. As a result, the nation — like the candidates we must choose from — is weaker and more polarized than at any time in recent history.

    Bill Stanley, a former reporter at The Day, is a retired vice president of Lawrence + Memorial Hospital.

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