I Let My 9-Year-Old Watch the Debate. It Was a Mistake.


Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

The first words out of her mouth were, “He looks so old!” And that’s really all you need to know about the first (and possibly last) presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump — the initial impressions of a fourth-grade girl in Brooklyn who has never watched a debate in her life. This was not an example of the unacknowledged truth slipping from the mouth of babes; it was, rather, a universal response, a shattering moment that has upended the race and led to a swell of calls for Biden to step aside. And there is a part of me that regrets that she had to experience it.

There is, too, a part of me that’s glad she did. I vaguely remember the first debate I ever watched, between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, way back in the mists of time, during a visit to relatives in Washington, D.C. I naturally asked who we were supposed to be rooting for. “We’re Democrats,” my father said, in a tone that was tinged with disapproval, as if to even consider voting for the Republican was tantamount to betrayal of our values and ideals — of who we were. That is about all I remember from that night, pretty typical fare for a family of Irish American liberals on the East Coast. (For a taste of my family’s politics, I recently attended a gathering where one of my uncles was wearing an actual “Free on Wednesdays” campaign T-shirt, which I had never before seen in the wild.) Yet it was also formative, for this is in fact how political and tribal identities are formed, around the sepia glow of a television set, all of us nervously praying this guy named Dukakis trounces this other guy named Bush.

In addition to indoctrinating my daughter into a lifetime of frustration and disappointment — after last night, I was reminded of the banners hanging at The Simpsons version of the DNC: “We Hate Life and Ourselves” and “We Can’t Govern” — I also wanted to introduce her to the strange glories of American democracy at work, to see for herself the lurid spectacle that has long fascinated me and that somewhat unexpectedly has become the focus of my career. The debate is a civics lesson, the democratic process boiled down to the fundamentals of two opponents arguing a point before an audience of voters, except it is laced with the sort of gladiatorial showmanship that makes politics absurd and stupid and riveting — that makes it entertainment. I wanted to show her that an interest in politics could be fun.

Except this was the opposite of fun. From the very moment Biden opened his mouth, emitting a vaporous whisper from the ancient cave of his throat, I started to groan on the couch. “What’s the matter?” she asked. She would ask this question again and again, as I writhed and clutched my head in response to Biden balking for what seemed like small eternities between words, his sentences petering out into dribbles of mangled thought. “It’s not supposed to be like this” is what I kept saying by way of explanation, though she had no way of understanding how it was supposed to be. Even worse, in my estimation, were the moments when Biden wasn’t speaking, when Trump would with great verve and conviction utter every insane and hateful thing in his head, and the split screen showed Biden staring unblinking into the distance, as if he were caught in a net of his own dreams, which is another way of saying the net of his old age.

My daughter went to bed before the debate was over, and the next morning, the first thing she said was: “Who won?” Well, Trump did, I told her, and his victory was so decisive that now we’ll have to figure out whether Biden can continue at the top of the ticket. She dropped her own Simpsons reference, saying Biden could be like Mr. Burns in the episode where he gets injections that let him live forever but force him to say “I bring you love” in a high-pitched voice. In fact, I said, a colleague of mine said she would rather have Undead Biden than Alive-and-Breathing Trump in the White House, and naturally I feel the same, but that it didn’t seem responsible to vote for someone who has so manifestly deteriorated in the last four years and would no doubt deteriorate even further in the next four. And so the morning went, which would seem like evidence that letting her watch the debate was, overall, a net positive, both in terms of real-world knowledge won and father-and-daughter bonding.

But there was a moment where she was watching these two men onscreen that simply felt wrong, for lack of a better word. There was the unmediated exposure to Trump, of course, which always feels like playing with some radioactive substance. But it was also dismaying to see a young person witness Biden falter in such humiliating fashion, as if she were unwittingly watching a form of abuse. How could these two senile creatures squabbling about golf be our only options? How could the Democrats have let this happen? I kept telling her, “It’s not supposed to be like this,” but this is how it is. And worse — for people like us, anyway, who have been led to believe we are connected in some deep and important way to the Democrats — this is who we are.

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