As US presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton exchanged a handshake and a smile at the lip of the stage provided by New York's Hofstra University, there was a palpable sense that the 'warmth' — no matter how insincere — would be ephemeral.
And it was.
No sooner had the moderator, Lester Holt, asked the first question — relating to jobs and job creation, that both Clinton and Trump began laying into each other.
"Trumped-up trickle down economics" was the phrase used by Clinton to describe how Trump intends to 'Make America Great Again', adding, "Donald wants to help the rich so as to build the economy. I want to help the small businessmen." In turn, the Republican candidate fired back that it was the trade agreements, particularly Nafta (the North American Free Trade Agreement), that were to blame. And fixing these 'defective' trade agreements, he claimed, was something "Clinton, politicians and others should have been doing this for years".
And that was when the floodgates opened. Sample these (and then go check out these zingers):
Clinton: Donald thinks climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese
Trump: I did not, I do not say that
Trump: The single biggest problem we have is nuclear, not global warming as you and your president think.
Trump: I will release my tax returns against my lawyers wishes when she releases the 33,000 emails that have been deleted.
Clinton: I made a mistake using private email. I’m not going to make excuses. It was a mistake.
Trump: That was not a mistake. That was done purposely
Trump: If he (in reference to a man who was not paid for constructing a building on one of Trump's golf courses) was not paid, it's because he didn't do a good job.
Clinton: I’m relieved my late father never did business with you
Trump: I was endorsed by cops, generals, immigration people, admirals. I’ll take that anyday over the political hacks that have led this country.
Trump: She’s saying Russia (is responsible for hacking the US), but it could also be China. It could also be someone sitting on his bed who weighs 400 pounds.
Trump: It (the issue of President Barack Obama's place of birth) was started by Hillary’s campaign team. I got him to give the birth certificate... I was the one that got him to produce the birth certificate. I think I did a good job. Just like she can’t bring back jobs, she can’t produce the certificate.
Clinton: Donald has begun his political activity with this racist lie that our first black president was not an American. He persisted year after year, because his supporters either believed it or wanted to believe it. Donald began his career in 1979 by being sued by justice dept for racial discrimination for not renting out apartments to African-Americans. He has a long record of racist behaviour.
Trump: You treated Obama with terrible disrespect. When you try to act holier-than-thou, it really doesn’t work.
Clinton: I hope the fact-checkers are turning up the volume and really paying attention.
Trump: I did not support the war on Iraq! That is mainstream media nonsense put out by her! (points at Clinton)
Trump: I have better judgment than she does. I also have better temperament than she does. I have a winning temperament. I know how to win. She does not... The other day, behind the blue screen, I don't know who you (Clinton) were talking to, but you was out of control. I said, “There’s a person who has a temperament problem”.
Clinton: A man who can be provoked by a tweet should not be anywhere near a nuclear code.
Trump: It’s getting old.
Clinton: It’s a good one though.
Well, you get the idea.
A few interesting observations emerged here, and that's without getting into Trump's 'winning temperament'. Referring to Obama as 'your' president undermines the sort of respect that presidential candidates have hitherto — publicly at least, if not in private — accorded (and it could be argued, are expected to accord) the incumbent. Also, when referring to the source of cyber-attacks, Trump's reference to 'someone sitting in his bed who weighs 400 pounds' is likely not to go down particularly well with the plus-size community. Having alienated large chunks of society, including but not limited to women and the Hispanic community, his remarks could either be seen as fat-shaming or just a lazy perception of what a member of the hacker community looks like.
Clinton and Trump both set about establishing their personas right from the first question. With repeated references to her father Hugh E Rodham and his drapery business, Clinton's position was that she, as the daughter of a small businessman, was speaking on behalf of small businessmen. Trump, on the other hand, with repeated references to his own business ventures — including two particularly tasteless ones when discussing the Charlotte shooting and aftermath ("I have investments in Charlotte") and growing crime rates in Chicago ("I own property there") — sought to project himself primarily as a successful businessman.
In doing so, Clinton appeared to be trying to tell her country that the economic and trade policies she was suggesting would help the common man and result in job creation. Meanwhile, Trump appeared to be using business sense to explain some of the strange things he has said in the past like getting allies to pay for protection (the foreign policy equivalent of hafta vasooli, perhaps). "Nato? You have to understand I’m a businessperson. Number one, 28 countries of Nato — not all are paying their fair share. And they should be paying us," he said, using the US' $20 trillion debt as the reason that payment was required. By positioning himself as this big businessman and constantly drawing attention to the country's debt as well as the lack of jobs, his message seemed to be that what the US really needs is Donald Trump as CEO.
Meanwhile, Clinton was trying to project Trump as being delusional, misguided and living in his own reality (something to which she even alluded in the first segment of the debate), while Trump was playing on Hillary's '30 years' in government as being full of 'bad experiences' and failures.
'I did not, I do not say that'
For starters, we learned that the Trump and Clinton camps had divergent views on the role Holt should have been playing as moderator. While Trump's people did not want the moderator to fact-check, Clinton's aides insisted that he be allowed to correct Trump if he made factually incorrect statements. And when it came down to it, by and large, Holt abstained from correcting Trump. There was one incident that could be construed either as correction or clarification, but the jury's still out on that one. Holt asked Trump to comment on his own statement in September that Clinton did not have a 'presidential look'. The Republican candidate began to hem and haw about how what he actually said was that she did not have the 'stamina' to be president. It was at that point that Holt stepped in and repeated his question, clearly disambiguating between 'presidential look' and 'stamina'.
For the most part, however, Trump didn't need Holt to remind him of his past utterances. Clinton was more than upto the task. From pointing out that Trump thought 'climate change was a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese' to reminding Trump that he had spoken in favour of the war on Iraq, the former secretary of state had the real estate mogul constantly running for cover. When Trump wasn't grumbling "Wrong!", "Wrong!", "Wrong!", he was going to great pains to clarify what he actually said or meant to say, at the very least. His anguished lamentations of how nobody calls (Fox News') Sean Hannity presumably for proof that Trump never supported the Iraq War went some way in undermining that 'winning temperament' of which he boasted.
But it was during the 'presidential look'-versus-stamina segment that Clinton landed a virtually undefendable blow. "He tried to switch from look to stamina. This is a man who has called women 'pigs', 'slobs' and 'dogs'. He says pregnancy is inconvenient. And one of the worst things he said was about a woman in a beauty contest. He loves beauty contests — supporting them and hanging around them. And he called this woman 'Miss Piggy'. Then he called her 'Miss Housekeeping', because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name," fired Clinton as Trump probably looked around for Hannity in the hopes that he could save the day.
So who won?
As a debate itself, it was lacking in content, insight and exectution. And although a CNN/ORC poll of debate-watchers suggested that 62 percent felt Clinton had won, as against 27 percent opting for a Trump win, it was less about how much either candidate won and more about how little they lost. Trump put himself at a disadvantage by appearing to be under-prepared. Blustery generalisations, a Sarah Palin-esque lack of specifics and a refusal to stay on topic (in the mood Trump found himself, a question like "Do you like ice cream?" would have probably drawn a response about the Islamic State or Iran) made the Republican look a distinct amateur in all areas except one. Trade was where Trump appeared to have done his homework and seemed reasonably solid when backing up his positions on plurilateral trade agreements.
Apart from bagging major points on the issue of gender (see above), Clinton scored when calling out Trump for his generalisations and lack of specifics. A case in point was her riposte on Trump's plan for the Islamic State: "He says he has a secret plan for (Islamic State). The only secret is, he has no plan." If you bear in mind the fact that wiping out the Islamic State (and blaming the Obama administration for allowing it to blossom) has been second only to job creation in Trump's priority list, this was a major blow.
On other topics though, both candidates seemed as adept (or inept, depending on how you saw it) as each other. The difference was how Clinton managed to maintain her composure, while Trump seemed exasperated all too often. Broadly, Clinton took the first debate, however, that counts for very little and is an unreliable indicator of how the US will vote. Remember the thumping victory Al Gore enjoyed over George W Bush in the first presidential debate in October 2000? How did that turn out for Gore?
Now, the attention shifts to the Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, where the second presidential debate will take place on 9 October. The format will be different, with "half of the questions (to) be posed directly by citizen participants and the other half (to) be posed by the moderator based on topics of broad public interest as reflected in social media and other sources". Before that, however, is the small matter of the battle of the potential veeps, with Mike Pence squaring up against Tim Kaine on 4 October at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. Both Pence and Kaine will seek to build on the gains of their running mates and limit the damage suffered, in order to generate momentum before Trump and Clinton clash again.