In New York, on board the aircraft carrier Intrepid of Second World War vintage that is now the Intrepid, Sea, Air and Space Museum, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump told the voters how they would act as the commander-in-chief if either is elected the President of the USA. NBC and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America jointly sponsored the forum. Each candidate was given 30 minutes and NBC's Matt Lauer moderated the event and asked the questions. The moderator also allowed questions to be asked from the audience made up mainly of veterans who were previously selected.
Hillary Clinton was first to take the stage that was decided by a toss up. At the beginning, the moderator set one major rule for the event, which was that the candidates would refrain from attacking each other. That was, of course, difficult in a campaign that has so far been vicious primarily because Donald Trump has made viciousness his major campaign strategy. But the moderator gave much more leeway to Donald Trump who was allowed to attack Hillary Clinton whenever he wanted although Hillary Clinton who attacked her opponent a lot fewer times was at least once reminded not to do so. Donald Trump also used criticising President Obama as a ploy to circumvent the rules to attack Hillary Clinton.
The moderator started the evening by putting Hillary Clinton on the mat on the email issue. He spent a good part of her time on it that was not central to the theme of the event, which was to help voters choose who has the better temperament, experience, knowledge and preparedness to become the commander-in-chief. He followed that with the Iraq war that she had supported. She defended the email issue with technical details that may not have helped or harmed her case. Her assertion that the Iraq war was a mistake was given partisan spins in the media. Her remark that she would never again send ground troops in a foreign war was analysed critically by those outside the partisan camps. Some of them were critical because they felt Hillary Clinton had misstated facts. They did so because there are ground troops both in Iraq and Afghanistan. They also felt that before becoming the President, she should not be stating whether or not the US would be committing troops overseas again.
For a presidential candidate, what Hillary Clinton said and the criticisms about what she said were quite normal. These notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton appeared and talked with style, dignity, knowledge and experience. She also appeared very well informed with everything she said and in the way she took the questions and answered them. She also appeared as a candidate who is prepared to act as the President and the Commander-in-Chief if elected. Her many decades of experience as a First Lady, Senator when she was a member of the Senate Armed Affairs Committee and Secretary of State quite evidently put her a few classes above her opponent.
Donald Trump was by contrast almost everything that a presidential candidate should not be. He looked like someone who had walked into some TV reality show. He tried to look presidential but did not appear so because of his body language and because of what he said on stage. He appeared unprepared and some commentators went to the extent of suggesting that his knowledge about the questions he was asked was so shallow and limited that even preparation would not have helped him. In recent weeks, he has made some major inroads into Hillary Clinton's lead and one reason for it was his use of the teleprompter in public events after ridiculing Hillary Clinton for using them. In the C-in-C forum, he had no teleprompters. Therefore he answered the questions his way that were sometimes unrelated and most of the times, about his exploits and achievements.
There were a number of unbelievable and atrocious things that Donald Trump said in the event that should alert every American voter. Among these some were tantamount to landing the United States of America in serious conflicts with international law. For instance, he ridiculed President Obama for withdrawing ground troops from Iraq without taking out the country's huge reserve of oil that he thought should have belonged to the United States as the "spoils of war." Montel Williams, a well-known TV talk show host and a former vet, said that would have been a war crime under international covenants to which the US is a signatory. It reflected a colonial and imperialist mindset that is now history. More importantly, when asked how would the US take all of Iraq's huge oil reserves, Donald Trump's response was childish that was an insult to the viewers.
Donald Trump made a hero of the Russian President Vladimir Putin in order to humiliate President Obama. He called him a great leader respected worldwide and far better than his own president that was unpatriotic. It was also foolish because Donald Trump seemed totally unaware of what the Russian President has been doing in international affairs. He said that as Vladimir Putin is fighting to demolish ISIS and the US also wants the same, he would use his charm and friendship with Vladimir Putin to work with him and together defeat ISIS! This was a simpleton's way of understanding and dealing with an international issue of humongous complexities. Donald Trump underlined that he just did not know the basics of the issues he was discussing and used pristine narcissism to establish his points without any effort to explain them.
When asked about his preparedness to deal with international leaders, Donald Trump just bragged about his brilliant successes in international business. He seemed to think that his business background is enough to prepare him as a commander-in-chief forgetting that he has a litany of chapter 11 cases that he used to save himself from failed business ventures in the country. Donald Trump also trashed the US generals that he said have been reduced "to a rubble" by President Obama. He said as President, he would replace them with his hand-picked generals; an idea that is so preposterous that it is a wonder that the media has not come out on it in a way it should have. President Obama gave them a lead that they should take. He called it "wacky," one made in utter disrespect to those who lead the country's military.
Hillary Clinton gave her much-awaited press conference the morning following the C-in-C Forum in New York. She took advantage of the huge ammunitions that Donald Trump gifted her that the media is still for reasons it alone can explain not exposing. One thing that came out very clearly though is that if the US voters have seen the event, there is no way for those outside his core supporters to vote for him. Donald Trump has himself established that he does not have the credentials to become the commander-in-chief and surely does not have the temperament to become the President of the United States by the bizarre ways in which he conducted himself that often appeared grossly surreal.
Matt Lauer has come in for major criticisms for the way he conducted the event. He has been blamed for leaning towards Donald Trump, offering him "soft balls" for questions and pushing Hillary Clinton towards her problems. That point came out in her press conference where she seemed also to hint a media bias against her as a woman without saying anything on it categorically. This notwithstanding, it is now more than obvious that the things that Donald Trump has been saying are such that even if Hillary Clinton had said a part of it, the media would have made her history. The media for its own credibility must now explain what Donald Trump meant by "to the winner go the spoils". The United States could not have sent a worse signal as a responsible world power to the rest of the world.
The writer is a retired Ambassador.