Hillary Clinton in a bright red top against the blue debate background.

We reached the “Democrats Abroad” meeting just before the debate started. The TV screens clicked on as debate moderator Lester Holt introduced presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Clinton was resplendent in red, after wearing mostly muted shades during the Democratic convention. Donald Trump was his usual self, spray tanned and bottle blonde in a slightly rumpled business suit.

As widely reported, Clinton told the first lie of the evening: “I’m glad to see you again, Donald,” she smiled.  

Moderator Holt’s first question, about free trade agreements, put Clinton on the spot. Trump leaped to blame her for corporations fleeing to Mexico and other low-wage, low-tax zones. Tables turned when Holt asked how he would bring jobs back to the U.S. Trump said he wouldn’t let jobs leave in the first place. But now that they’ve gone, Holt persisted, how would he get jobs back?

Trump started throwing wild numbers around, which gave Clinton the chance to announce her website’s fact checker (PBS had one too). As nearly a million debate drinking games proliferated on the web, Raw Story ran a banner headline, “WARNING: Drinking every time Trump lies during the debate could lead to alcohol poisoning and death.”

Indeed, most news reports counted up Donald Trump’s lies as a necessary statistic.

“The biggest whopper,” wrote Daniel Dale in the Toronto Star, was “his repeated claim that he opposed the war in Iraq, which he supported until 17 months after the invasion…Among other things, he also falsely claimed that New York has seen more murders since the city ended its stop-and-frisk police search program, that the stop-and-frisk was not ruled unconstitutional, that he did not press the issue of President Barack Obama’s birthplace until after 2011, that he never suggested he could re-negotiated the country’s debt, and that he has called climate change a Chinese hoax.”

The Globe and Mail‘s John Ibbitson, who won the 2015 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize (worth $25,000) for his admiring profile of Stephen Harper, metaphorically threw up his hands in horror. “Could any honestly uncommitted voter, could any reasonable person, conclude after Monday night’s debate that America would be in better hands with Mr. Trump as president? No. That conclusion simply is not possible based on the evidence.”

Hillary Clinton did more than benefit from Trump’s clumsiness, though. She was poised, prepared, and smiling as Trump blamed her and the Democrats for the ruined U.S. economy. “We owe $20 trillion and we’re in a mess,” he complained. She replied with a wry smile, “Maybe it’s because you haven’t paid any federal income taxes.” CNN’s post-debate polls showed “a blow-out victory for Clinton.”

“Ms. Clinton was persistent, patient, steady,” wrote Ibbitson. “She defended her positions with vigour and didn’t hesitate to call her opponent out on his misdeeds, including his vile comments about women.”

“Clinton, who has seen her dominance of the presidential race fade in the weeks since the Democratic convention, delivered a strong performance,” wrote the CNN’s Stephen Collinson, “in which she demonstrated a command of policy and a sense of humor, smiling through some of Trump’s strongest attacks.”

While Clinton was unfailingly polite to Trump, she definitely put him on the defensive. She delivered several zingers, listing his six bankruptcies (“I took advantage of the law,” he replied), the two available tax returns that show he paid no federal income tax (“I was smart,” he replied) and his appalling behaviour towards women. His answers are likely to rankle with voters who expect a president to show leadership and commitment to the nation.

Clinton always called her opponent “Donald,” with the patience of mother dealing with a difficult child, although he prefers to be called “Mr. Trump.” This move seemed to undermine Trump’s sense of authority. The more she sighed and smiled and patiently corrected him, the more his shoulders slumped and the wilder his claims and interjections became. “You’ve been fighting ISIS your whole adult life,” he claimed, although Clinton is nearly 70 and ISIS, using the most generous estimates, began no more than 12 years ago, in 2004.

Even before the debate, Fox News captured a priceless video of Reverend Faith Timmons-Green insisting Trump stay on-topic at a speech at her church in Flint, Michigan. In the video, Trump blames the Flint, Michigan, toxic water crisis on system failure, and launches into listing all Hillary Clinton’s failures.

The redoubtable Rev Timmons-Green thumps up onstage and bellows, “Mr. Trump! You were invited here to thank us for our contribution, not to make a political speech!” Trump cowers, picks up his speech again — and when he starts to veer off course again, she warns him from the audience with “Mr. Trump!” “Wouldn’t do it,” he nods, “wasn’t thinking of it.”

I had wondered if Hillary Clinton might take that sort of schoolmarm approach during the debate. Trump looks like the kind of guy you could grab by the ear. And she did put him in his place, but subtly. The wilder he grew, the calmer she became and the more obviously she humoured him. As Metro’s Rosemary Westwood wrote, “There was only one adult on the debate stage last night. And she absolutely slayed.” 

Clinton not only showed she was prepared, she showed a grace and forbearance that would seem foreign to her opponent. She reminded me of Texas Governor Ann Richardson’s famous remark that  being a women in politics is like being Ginger Rogers in a Fred Astaire movie. “Ginger Rogers did everything Astaire did,” she said, “except backwards, and in high heels.”

That’s what Hillary Clinton did on Monday night. In fact, The Telegraph (UK) created a “Hillary shimmy” gif from her response to one of Trump’s more outrageous charges.

Or, as Canadian political pioneer, Ottawa Mayor Charlotte Whitton put it way back in the 1960s, “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily,” she added, “this is not difficult.” Especially when the man is Donald Trump. 

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Penney Kome

Penney Kome

Award-winning journalist and author Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column...