Tonight’s presidential campaign debate may not be a fight to the death — not quite — but there’s plenty about the impending Clinton-Trump battles that keeps reminding me of the old and superb BBC TV adaptation of Robert Graves’s historical novel, set in ancient Rome, “I, Claudius.” In particular, there’s a scene in which Livia, wife of the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar, decides to sponsor some gladatorial games, and wants to be sure she gets her money’s worth.
Taking time out from her usual occupation of quietly poisoning half the imperial family, Livia pays an advance visit to the gladiators, to tell them she expects an authentic performance: “These games are being degraded by the increasing use of professional tricks to stay alive, and I won’t have it!”
In that spirit, Livia would make a fitting moderator for the 2016 debates. Not that the Livia of “I, Claudius” brought any integrity whatsoever to politics. Nor, for that matter, did she ever set foot in Rome’s Colosseum — which was built after her time. (Personally, I prefer a system in which we reserve the killing for the real battlefields, where despite President Obama’s self-infatuated narratives the tide of war has been rising to heights from which it is now spilling over into the shopping malls, bars, Christmas parties and main thoroughfares of America.)
But in this instance, the fictitious Livia understood that the audience would not feel well-served by a sham performance. She wanted the real thing.
That’s what’s needed in these debates. Politics ain’t bean-bag, and never was. But this election, in particular, is no genteel contest. Nor, after two terms under Obama, is there anything in the landscape — foreign or domestic — that suggests the prize will translate into a calm sinecure in the White House. With America’s regulation-choked economy at home and diminished stature abroad, there are rough straits ahead. There are also such nontrivial questions as whether the next president will respect the Constitution, or carry on with the current administration’s predilection for consigning it to the White House shredders.
The past few days have brought us round-the-clock speculation on how this debate will play out, including endless advice — on TV panels, in Op-eds, online — for both the candidates and the audience. Here’s a thread from Reddit, musing on what drugs the candidates should take to enhance their charms onstage (including the usual mix of the profane, absurd and comic, with one wag suggesting helium).
As we take our seats in the Colosseum, I’ll confine myself to this: There is no guarantee against professional tricks (including such stunts from the moderator as the 2012 Candy-Crowley thumb-on-the-scale, for which PJ Media awarded her the 2014 Walter Duranty Prize). Livia is not policing these debates — which, in a democracy, is just as well. Nor, for all the entertainment value, is this a game. It’s up to America’s voters to see past the artifice, and judge not only how well these candidates fight each other, but what they are fighting for and where they might lead us. It’s not just their combat we’re watching. It’s ours. Terrifying, perhaps — but still the best of all bad systems.