The 1992 presidential debates were memorable for a number of reasons.
For the first (and, as of 2020, last) time, a third-party candidate made the debate stage: populist Texas billionaire and deficit hawk Ross Perot, whose candidacy is often cited as presaging Donald Trump’s successful 2016 run. It would also be the first time major party nominees were subjected to the bane of this writer’s existence, a debate format known as the town hall meeting.
Anyone who’s paid consistent attention to my writing, all three of you, will know my unconcealed contempt for the “town hall meeting.” Firstly, the appellation is only nominally true. It’s only a “town hall meeting” inasmuch as it necessarily takes place in a town, it’s usually in a building we could classify as a “hall,” and if there are a bunch of people there, I guess you could call it a meeting.
A “town hall meeting,” instead, is an excuse for networks to outsource the question-asking part of their moderating duty to an audience of smiling ideologues asking a set of pre-screened queries, then pretending the whole charade is an exercise in participatory democracy. I watch because I write about them; why you would do so without that incentive is beyond me. Even then, I constantly check the clock in the upper right of my MacBook screen praying this thing’ll be over soon.
Apple had only introduced the PowerBook line of laptops in October of 1991, and bringing one up on stage, even now, would be considered a breach of the rules, not to mention a huge faux pas.
You could still check your watch to see when the event would end, though — which is what then-President George H. W. Bush did during that first presidential town hall back in 1992.
Now, Ross Perot — were he still with us — could probably trot out a series of graphs showing that Bush checking his watch wasn’t the only gaucherie that led to voters deciding he wasn’t in touch with the electorate and thus electing a man who would feel their pain.
However, it’s generally considered one of the more memorable debate moments of recent decades and has stuck in our nation’s collective consciousness long enough that we all remembered it Thursday, when Joe Biden did the same thing in a debate he was clearly losing:
Joe Biden looks at his watch during the debate pic.twitter.com/qxThObra4G
— RNC Research (@RNCResearch) October 23, 2020
It wasn’t just the Republican National Committee Research account tweeting this one out, either:
Biden in a George Bush debate moment: checking the watch pic.twitter.com/zBg6AwLCe3
— Amichai Stein (@AmichaiStein1) October 23, 2020
Joe Biden looks at his watch during the debate.
— Steve Guest (@SteveGuest) October 23, 2020
Donald Trump Jr. noticed the mistake:
If you’re checking your watch in a debate you’re getting pummeled. Joe was just wanted out of there. He’s tired.
If Joe doesn’t have the energy to go 90 minutes how could he possibly run the country??? pic.twitter.com/wSKK9l7aT3
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) October 23, 2020
As did Will Ainsworth, the Republican lieutenant governor of Alabama:
Joe Biden should have learned from George H.W. Bush that you don’t look at your watch during the debate. pic.twitter.com/VOsCdZafZX
— Will Ainsworth (@willainsworthAL) October 23, 2020
Democrats were all over him, said it sent a signal to voters he was disinterested in their needs. Considered one of the most critical all time debate blinders. pic.twitter.com/f7PpsAuU0G
— Coach_Frank (@NorfolkKnights) October 23, 2020
Indeed. As Politico noted, “Bush was criticized at the time for peeking at his watch, with observers saying he appeared bored with the questions raised by voters.”
Yet the reactions from the establishment media this time around were muted. In fact, it was mostly the conservative side of Twitter who seemed to notice the debate mistake, with many divided over whether it was a George H.W. Bush-esque sign that Biden wasn’t terribly interested in being there or just a sign that Biden was simply tuckered out:
. @JoeBiden just looked at his watch – for a long stare.
— Richard Grenell (@RichardGrenell) October 23, 2020
Biden checks watch towards the end of the debate… It’s getting late: pic.twitter.com/zECgfnnjsO
— Henry Rodgers (@henryrodgersdc) October 23, 2020
Biden repeats the 1992 mistake of George H.W. Bush in debate – looking at his watch while the camera is on. Trump has made mistakes, but Biden.should have known not to bring a watch on stage.
— John Fund (@johnfund) October 23, 2020
Joe Biden checks his watch.
— America Rising (@AmericaRising) October 23, 2020
Vice President Mike Pence also made note of Biden’s solecism during an appearance in Swanton, Ohio, on Friday afternoon.
“I saw Joe looking at his watch I figured he was trying to figure out how soon this thing is going to be over,” Pence said, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
Now, it is important to note the context in which Biden checked his watch.
“Gentlemen, we’re running out of time so we got to get onto climate change, please,” debate moderator Kristen Welker said right beforehand, which explains why Biden might get the urge to check his watch to see exactly how much time remained in the debate.
Still, it was an urge he should have resisted, especially considering Bush’s well-publicized mistake 28 years ago. The point is this: It’s a very, very bad look for a presidential candidate to check their watch during a debate, and Biden should have known this.
In a turn of events that everyone probably saw coming, however, the biggest news is that this wasn’t news. In 1992, Bush’s watch check played into a narrative that everyone wanted to forward: The president didn’t really care about you while Bill Clinton did.
In a 2008 retrospective of the moment for U.S. News & World Report, Alex Markels wrote that “[i]t was the telltale sign of a man made uneasy — or, at least, bored — by an audience member’s question about how a deep recession had personally affected him. The then president’s display of impatience seemed to speak volumes more than his awkward response” to the questioner.
“Where Bush appeared impatient, ‘Clinton steps in and empathizes, empathizes, empathizes,’ says University of Pennsylvania political scientist Kathleen Hall Jamieson.”
Meanwhile, in 2020, Biden’s watch check — even considering the wider context — played into a narrative no one wants to talk about very much, much less forward: Biden either doesn’t want or isn’t in a condition to be in this race.
As for the former, take The New York Times’ August 2019 report on the complicated relationship between Barack Obama and Joe Biden. When Biden was considering a run at the presidency in 2020, Obama reportedly told him, “You don’t have to do this, Joe, you really don’t.”
“Mr. Biden — who thinks he could have defeated Donald Trump four years ago — responded by telling Mr. Obama he could never forgive himself if he turned down a second shot at Mr. Trump,” The Times’ Glenn Thrush wrote.
That doesn’t seem like a man who’s running out of a burning desire to serve — and, indeed, there have been times where Biden seems like a man shorn of any purpose save for proving he can beat Donald Trump and that Barack Obama made the wrong choice when he tacitly anointed Hillary Clinton instead of Biden as his successor in 2016.
The sports metaphor about running out the clock has been used figuratively many times about Biden’s campaigning strategy. Here’s him literally doing that.
On the latter count, it’s no secret Biden is a man visibly diminished from his glory days. The word “dementia” has been thrown around. Keep in mind that during the 2016 campaign, any talk about Hillary Clinton’s ability to survive the exigencies of the campaign — and the presidency — was treated as conspiracy theorizing, something best left to fester on Infowars.
That we’re at the point where we can even mention the d-word in relation to a presidential candidate with a D after their name, and that we mention it regularly, is telling.
“Dementia” is a strong word and a diagnosis I wouldn’t personally give — but even still, when a candidate not infrequently “puts a lid” on campaign days at 9:30 a.m., you come to the realization that you may be electing someone who a) lacks the vim and vigor to do the job and b) is the kind of person old enough that he still uses “vim and vigor” in everyday conversation and believes it’s hip argot.
The watch check plays into both of these narratives (as Biden should have known). You won’t hear about either one of them from the establishment media.
But enough people noticed that it should make Biden look bad. And, unlike George H.W. Bush, he can’t fall back on the excuse of just wanting to get out of a dreadful town hall-format event — which, for the record, Bush would later admit could have been part of the reason for his watch check.
“Was I glad when the d— thing was over?” Bush told PBS’ Jim Lehrer. “Yeah.”
I’m not going to say he should have done it, but at least I understand.
In Biden’s case, there’s really no excuse, and the former vice president should have known that checking his watch would raise more questions that he and his campaign have no desire to answer.
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