In the words of the greatest political mind of a decent generation, “I’m less visually observant than others, but I make up for it…with cunning and guile.”

I am The Son of Sam Seaborn.#


(this was originally posted on 10/10/16 but some people on Twitter thought it might be worth bumping in advance of the upcoming debates)

The second presidential debate was a Gordian Knot of intersecting narratives, plot developments, and political theater. There were vows of criminal prosecution and threats of jailing; there was, on display, the uncanny ability to say one is ‘going high’ while simultaneously aiming for the backs of knees.

However, much like the rest of the internet, I’m going to ignore the fact that the Trump campaign invited the three women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual abuse to sit in the front row (the debate commission wouldn’t let him put them in the VIP box), and that Donald Trump answered a question about the leaked audio tape with a response about ISIS. I’m not going to bring up that Mike Pence cancelled his campaign event for today, or that both Paul Ryan and the RNC have scheduled calls with their respective teams to discuss how to survive this political apocalypse. If, for some reason, you’d like to slog through the New York Times’ fact-checker, that’s on you and you can do it on your own time.

Because, according to large swaths of the internet, there is only one thing worth writing about when it comes to last night’s historic debate in St. Louis:




You know it’s big when Just Jared gets in on the political action…

And of course, there was Twitter:

Character limits notwithstanding, I think Glenn Thrush summed the hot-take up most eloquently in his “Five Takeaways” debate recap for Politico:

But forget what he said, just look at the images of the debate. Instead of retreating to another side of the stage like most candidates would when she talked, the hulking reality TV star hovered a few feet behind her, glowering as she spoke, like a lurking masher.

Still, even the veteran Thrush doesn’t call attention to my favorite wrinkle in this visual mosaic narrative…

Yes Donald Trump looked like the star of a Friday the 13th-meets-The Purge horror flick#, but Hillary Clinton wasn’t playing the Jamie Lee Curtisian part of unsuspecting-yet-harrowing victim, as the internet inadvertently demeaned.

From right in front of the camera, Hillary was directing the entire thing:

If Seneca the Younger were alive today, he’d tweet that lucky screengrabs like the one above are what happen when opportunity meets Hillary Clinton levels of over-preparation; yet even that bit of hypothetical rhetorical recognition belies the keen historical context in which Clinton’s brilliant directorial debut lies.

Because organically terrifying as it may have appeared, last night’s chilling screening of Menacing Trump has actually been in the works for almost a quarter century.

Ever since a young Governor Bill Clinton first pitched the novel idea of a “presidential town hall debate” to the incumbent George H.W. Bush back in 1992…


You might remember that election-altering event for this famous debate moment, in which Bill Clinton connects with a young woman asking about the recession in a way that Bush Sr. seemed literally incapable of:

Notice how he begins his answer by walking up incredibly close to where her seat is? Psychologically, that establishes a better empathetical connection between himself and this uncommitted voter (away from that other guy, who obviously doesn’t get it).

But Clinton, another infamous over-preparer, also knows that moving near the audience means the camera guy who is now only a few feet away from him is going to be able to get a great close-up on his face as looks this everyday citizen in the eye and tells her, “In my state, when people lose their jobs, there’s a good chance I’ll know them by their names. When a factory closes, I know the people who run it. When the businesses go bankrupt, I know them. And I’ve been out here meeting in meetings just like this, with people like you, all over America.”

At the 2:47 mark of that video, just as Clinton is getting to the “with people like you, all over America” part, the camera angle even switches to a great shot from a lucky cameraman perched right over the audience member’s shoulder – making it seem like we’re right there with them:


Though if fictional political analyst Harvey Dent were alive today, he’d remind you that we make our own luck…


Part of Bill Clinton’s debate prep for this “first-of-its kind” town hall actually involved his campaign laying out a grid on their replica stage, with fake cameras and body doubles positioned to teach the candidate how to best use the space when giving his various answers #.

And this bit of debate kabuki wasn’t just about Clinton making himself look good, it was also about making his opponent(s) look bad…


To quote historian Alan Schroder from his debate tome Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV:

“[Clinton] choreographed his moves so as to keep one or the other of his competitors in the camera shot at all times, a maneuver that circumvented the prohibition on cutaways of one candidate while another was speaking…Clinton…hoped to catch Bush and Perot on camera with ‘bad facial expressions.'”

When Bush got caught checking his watch (see: above image), it was the perfect visual encapsulation of Clinton’s not-so-secret message that the President didn’t care about the average American. In fact, the history books and (and John Dickerson’s fantastic Whistlestop podcast) suggest this once-innocuous town hall debate, covertly choreographed by an advantageous orator, was the death blow to a limping Bush campaign.

It’s just like how, almost 25 years later, all it took was Hillary working a few angles to show Americans across the country what a monster Donald Trump really is…