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If you want to understand who won this week’s presidential debate, keep in mind a moment from our political past that I call “Stahl’s Epiphany.” During the 1984 presidential campaign, CBS reporter Lesley Stahl put together a tough, unsparing critique of Ronald Reagan, focusing on the disjuncture between Reagan’s image and his policies. There were clips of Reagan celebrating Paralympic athletes and inaugurating a new retirement home, while Stahl revealed that his administration had actually tried to cut funding for disabled people and subsidized housing.
It aired as an almost six-minute segment on the evening news, and Stahl was sure that her White House contacts would be livid. Instead, she got a call from one of Reagan’s aides, Richard Darman, saying, “What a great story! We loved it.” When Stahl expressed puzzlement, Darman explained, “Nobody heard what you said. … You guys in Televisionland haven’t figured it out, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. Lesley, I mean it, nobody heard you.”
At first, as I was watching the Tuesday debate, I thought President Trump was winning. He was in command, making forceful jabs, controlling the agenda and putting Democratic nominee Joe Biden on the defensive. Biden was rarely able to make his points clearly without interruption. But then I thought of “Stahl’s Epiphany” and re-watched parts of the debate with the sound turned off. It was utterly revealing. Shorn of the words, the images revealed a stark contrast. On the one hand, you saw an elderly gentleman, somewhat faded, occasionally stumbling but showing a big smile and a warm heart. On the other side, you saw a fourth-grade bully, a mean-spirited, snarling man, emotionally out of control. He scowled and smirked his way through the entire 90-minute debate.