It was a moment as tiny as marking a ballot — those two minutes of the second debate, when the presidential election hung suspended mid-diatribe and the candidates let go of their opponent’s flaws long enough to honor a bit of common humanity.
No big deal. Yeah, I know.
But as the thing winds down to the day of reckoning, and a sense of lost values and lost democracy overwhelms me — the election season is pure spectacle, full of sound and fury (signifying nothing?) — I find myself going back to those two minutes over and over, trying to understand why they hit me with such force.
The second debate, possibly the ugliest playground fight of the three, was conducted in a “town hall” format, with a preselected audience of independent voters sharing the stage with the candidates, and at intervals an audience member was invited to ask the candidates a question. The debate was virtually over when moderator Martha Raddatz announced that “we’ve sneaked in one more question” and a man in the audience stood up.
“My question to both of you,” he said, “is, regardless of the current rhetoric, would either of you name one positive thing that you respect in one another?”
The moment seemed almost parental. Maybe in a way it was: a corralling of two out-of-control youngsters into respectable behavior. In the scant mention I’ve read about it, the question, unsurprisingly, has been dismissed as trite and nicey-nice and irrelevant to the absolutely serious matter of whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump should be the next, oh God, president, the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth, yada yada . . .
Nevertheless, there was a palpable, if temporary, change in the dynamic of the situation. The palpable disgust each candidate exuded, without restraint, toward the other one — the sterile stump blather: “Yo, America, I’m way better than that fool over there” — quieted down. The debate was suddenly unscripted. The moment was live. They were both vulnerable.
Clinton jumped in. “I think that’s a very fair and important question,” she said. “Look, I respect his children. His children are incredibly able and devoted, and I think that says a lot about Donald. I don’t agree with nearly anything else he says or does, but I do respect that. And I think that is something that as a mother and a grandmother is very important to me.”
She went on a little more, reverting to stump-speech mode: “So I believe that this election has become in part so — so conflict-oriented, so intense because there’s a lot at stake. . . .” Etc., etc.
Then Trump answered: “I will say this about Hillary. She doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up. I respect that. I tell it like it is. She’s a fighter. I disagree with much of what she’s fighting for. I do disagree with her judgment in many cases. But she does fight hard, and she doesn’t quit, and she doesn’t give up. And I consider that to be a very good trait.”
And that’s it. As I say, no big deal, except . . . I couldn’t stop thinking about a quote I once heard: You’re as close to God as you are to the person you like the least.
What had just happened stirred awake a different sort of consciousness, or so it seemed. And it was gone in a moment and had no effect on the outcome of the race or what the next four years will bring or the sport-and-spectacle media coverage that refuses to let up or the actual issues that matter about the nation’s future — war, poverty, racism, environmental exploitation — or, anything else. But still, there it was, a moment of interruption to the national hooting contest, a disruption of the national certainty that hatred fixes so firmly into place.
And I thought about the time, many years ago, when my great nephew Joey was a newborn and I held him for the first time.
“But still,” I later wrote, “this is what I thought, that there was a quality to Joey’s helplessness that seemed more godlike than anything else I had ever encountered. What if, I thought, the nature of God were openness and helplessness? What if destructive power were a human quality, not God’s?”
The point I’m struggling to make, here at the brink of the 2016 election, is that our future is the newborn we hold in our arms, vulnerable and dependent on us and deserving the best. I quiet my own certainties as I think about this and acknowledge that what I don’t know is infinitely greater than what I do know, or think I do.
And the mark I will make on my ballot is so much smaller than the pledge I make right now, to work for — to nurture — peace no matter who is elected.