Cramming for the Finals

You either know your stuff or you don’t. That’s how some of us approached finals in college, a long time ago. There was no point in cramming – if you’d been paying attention, and thinking, all term, all possible answers to all possible questions were already in your head. If they weren’t, there was no way to force-feed them in there in an all-night session or two. They wouldn’t stick anyway. If you hadn’t been engaged in the subject for four months, because you were always thinking of other things, it really was impossible to suddenly find it all fascinating and think deep thoughts about whatever it was. You can’t fake fascination with what actually bores you – so some of us played pool during finals week, and aced all our finals. It was just another day in class. Those who crammed barely got by, at best.

Of course there were the obsessive-compulsives, those who knew their stuff but crammed anyway. A good night’s sleep before each final would have served them better, but some people have to make sure they’ve got everything exactly right. Nothing would be left to chance. They had a plan for every possible contingency – and bloodshot eyes – and they did just fine anyway. They were unpleasant tight-ass people, but understandable. It takes all kinds – and then there were the snide goofballs. They didn’t give a shit about economics or literature or chemistry or whatever the course had been about. They hadn’t studied all term and they weren’t about to cram now. They’d take their chances with their quick wit and charm. Things would work out. They’d do fine – and sometimes they did do fine. More often than not – they didn’t. People tend to overestimate their quick wit and charm. Those were generally the rich kids whose parents had covered for them for years. They mistook that for their own personal wonderfulness. They were irritating too.

They wouldn’t ever change, and the obsessive-compulsives would also never change, and as the first presidential debate approaches, Hillary Clinton is the needlessly obsessive-compulsive, cramming for the big night, and Donald Trump is the snide goofball, the rich kid who knows he’ll always do fine, because he always has, blowing it off.

The New York Times lays it out:

Hillary Clinton is determined to get under Donald J. Trump’s skin at Monday’s debate, and is testing attack lines to try to rattle him.

Mr. Trump is largely shunning traditional debate preparations, but has been watching video of Mrs. Clinton’s best and worst debate moments, looking for her vulnerabilities.

She’s cramming and he isn’t:

Mrs. Clinton has a thick dossier on Mr. Trump after months of research and meetings with her debate team, including analysis and assumptions about his psychological makeup that Clinton advisers described as critical to understanding how to knock Mr. Trump off balance. Mrs. Clinton has concluded that catching Mr. Trump in a lie during the debate is not enough to beat him: She needs the huge television audience to see him as temperamentally unfit for the presidency, and that she has the power to unhinge him.

Mr. Trump, in turn, is approaching the debate like a Big Man on Campus who thinks his last-minute term paper will be dazzling simply because he wrote it.

He has paid only cursory attention to briefing materials. He has refused to use lecterns in mock debate sessions despite the urging of his advisers. He prefers spitballing ideas with his team rather than honing them into crisp, two-minute answers.

We all remember that guy from college, and that determines their preparations:


She is mentally readying herself for multiple Trumps: the disciplined opponent who sticks to big themes, the no-holds-barred adversary who goes on the offensive, and the snide antagonist who calls her a “loser” to her face. Her advisers are hurling a host of Trumpian assaults and counterattacks at her to test her responses and adjust them as needed.

Mrs. Clinton is eager to play offense and try to get under his skin, by doing things like calling him “Donald” and questioning his net worth.

Yet she is also testing out whether and how to interrupt Mr. Trump, as she does not want to be seen as pushy and play into gender stereotypes. In practice sessions, she has come across best when she waits to pounce confidently on Mr. Trump for lying or misstating facts, rather than trying to talk over him.


He does not like practicing an answer over and over until it is letter-perfect and appropriately brief. But this weekend’s work will be geared to running through questions while Mr. Trump is on his feet and aware of a countdown timer when he is speaking.

His advisers will try to throw him off balance, and measure his response to possible Clinton jabs like “You’re lying, Donald.”

He believes debates are not won or lost on policy minutiae since most viewers will not remember them in an hour. His advisers see it as a waste of time to try to fill his head with facts and figures. Instead, they want him to practice staying focused on big-picture themes (jobs, terrorism, protecting the homeland and closing borders, “Make America Great Again”) rather than picking fights on side issues or taking the bait from Mrs. Clinton.

She’ll know the subject matter and he won’t, but he assumes his quick wit and charm are what really matters.

Jonathan Chait puts that this way:

There are two ways to read today’s New York Times report from Donald Trump’s debate preparations, or lack thereof. One is that Trump’s advisers are deliberately setting expectations at rock bottom, so the media will proclaim him the winner if he can merely remain upright for the entire time. A second possibility is that they have come to the horrifying realization that their candidate is delusional, uninformed, lazy, and utterly unsuited to the presidency, and they’re hoping without evidence that these traits can somehow be hidden from the viewing public.

The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. In either case, Trump’s advisers are advertising that their candidate is a man-child. Trump cannot read and must be shown videos instead…

His own campaign did tell the New York Times that Trump is not doing much more than watching video of Clinton’s “best and worst debate moments” and only skims briefing materials, if he reads them at all, and he won’t even practice standing still:

He has refused to use lecterns in mock debate sessions despite the urging of his advisers … He prefers not to do a full-length mock debate, and has no set person playing Mrs. Clinton.

He is not using a lectern for mock debate drills, despite suggestions from some on his coaching team that simulating a one-on-one debate is good practice after the primary debates that featured several rivals …

Some Trump advisers are concerned that he underestimates the difficulty of standing still, talking pointedly and listening sharply for 90 minutes.

And he may be uncontrollably abusive:

His instinct in debates is often to attack and insult opponents, which had an upside during the circuslike primary debates but could be grating during a 90-minute one-on-one debate.

Chait also notes that Trump’s attention span is so limited that his advisers have given up on getting him to focus on preparation and simply hope he can pay attention throughout the actual debate:

Mr. Trump can get bored with both debate preparations and debates themselves. His advisers have been reinforcing the importance of listening and focusing on every word Mrs. Clinton says and looking for ways to counterattack.

And there’s this:

He may not like debate preparations, but he is very competitive and wants to vanquish Mrs. Clinton on Monday night. His team has been emphasizing the best ways to win: Do not pick stupid fights with her or with the moderator; explain yourself rather than get defensive; and deliver the answers you want rather than worrying about directly answering the question.

Chait thinks that’s pathetic:

If Trump is legitimately as stupid, lazy, and childlike as his advisers portray him to be, they should stop helping him get through the debate and instead warn America not to let him become president.

Maybe so, but Jonathan Freedland sees this:

So low are expectations for his performance on Monday – where it is assumed that his opponent, a seasoned debater, will wipe the floor with him – that if Trump manages to speak in vaguely coherent sentences and not deliver a misogynist insult to Clinton’s face, his advocates will declare that he looked “presidential” and anoint him the winner. If he can somehow persuade wavering voters that he is not so ridiculous as to merit automatic disqualification, he will have cleared a crucial hurdle.

And for all her experience, Clinton heads towards this first, and therefore most important, debate facing some serious obstacles. She’s been advised that she mustn’t interrupt too much or talk over Trump: apparently voters react badly to seeing a woman act that way. According to a New York Times report well sourced from inside Hillary’s debate preparation team, “she does not want to be seen as pushy and play into gender stereotypes”. This was not something Barack Obama, or husband Bill, ever had to worry about.

And she has other problems:

If she calls him a liar, he’ll hit back over her use of a private email server, calling her Crooked Hillary, knowing that some 60% of Americans believe she’s dishonest. The risk is that he’ll use her experience and expertise against her, casting her as the boring know-it-all against the freewheeling, entertaining guy who relies on good old gut instinct.

If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a show we’ve already seen. In 2000 Al Gore was clearly the more accomplished, ready-for-office candidate. But he came across as impatient and pompous against the looser, backslapping George W Bush. Never mind that one was a visionary on the issue of climate change while the other would lead the US into the catastrophic invasion of Iraq. On the night, Bush came across better on TV.

Which brings us to a core problem facing Hillary Clinton: Polls show there are millions of voters, especially young ones, who agree in big numbers that Trump is a racist and a sexist, unqualified for America’s highest office – but who are refusing to back Clinton. One survey of 18- to 34-year-olds recorded dire numbers for Trump, but still found only 31% supporting Clinton, with 29% preferring libertarian Gary Johnson and 15% the Green candidate Jill Stein. If those numbers are replicated on Election Day, Trump will win.

This too stirs queasy memories of 2000. In that year, a small but significant bloc on the left voted for Ralph Nader instead of Gore. More than 90,000 voted for Nader in Florida, a state Gore was eventually deemed to have lost by just 537 votes. Had even a tiny fraction of those Naderites decided to hold their nose and choose Gore instead, there would have been no Bush presidency – and no Iraq war.

And that’s not sour grapes:

You might think this is all so obvious that it barely needs stating. But 2000 can seem like ancient history to those who don’t remember it. And here, younger voters are not to blame. Older liberals haven’t seared the Bush calamity into the minds of the next generation. They never turned 2000 into a cautionary tale of the cost of third-party indulgence. As the New Republic put it this week, “Liberals have failed to teach millennials about the horror of George W Bush.”

So now even though the hour is late this is the case Democrats must make – that this is an exceptional election because Donald Trump represents an exceptional menace, to America and to the world. It is indeed a referendum on Trump and the only way to vote no in that referendum is to vote Clinton. She may not be the candidate of your dreams, but she’s all that stands between you and an American nightmare.

You don’t have to love her. You don’t even have to like her. You’re not saying she’s flawless (though the current Democratic platform is its most progressive in 30 years, thanks in part to the challenge of Bernie Sanders). As Joe Biden puts it, “Don’t compare her to the Almighty. Compare her to the alternative.” And the alternative is President Trump.

Still, she should worry, except that Marissa Payne notes that Clinton has a secret weapon:

Donald Trump critic Mark Cuban won’t be on stage during Monday’s first presidential debate between his nemesis and Hilary Clinton, but he’ll be pretty darn close: The Dallas Mavericks owner announced that he scored front-row seats to the spectacle at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

Cuban tweeted about it Thursday night, and a Clinton campaign aide later confirmed the news to CNN – “Just got a front row seat to watch @HillaryClinton overwhelm @realDonaldTrump at the Humbling at Hofstra on Monday. It Is On!”

“He has the best seat we have access to,” the aide told the cable news network Thursday. “Cuban has proven to be singularly effective in making the case against Trump and for Clinton. That is why we invited him.”

Well, Cuban has been a pain in the ass to Trump:

Cuban has repeatedly questioned Trump’s qualifications, most memorably calling him “batshit crazy” at a July campaign event in Pittsburgh, where he also formally endorsed Clinton.

“Trump scares me,” Cuban said (via CNN) directly after addressing the crowd. “Donald, initially, I really hoped he would be something different, that as a businessperson, I thought there was an opportunity there. But then he went off the reservation.”

In his latest effort to dog Trump, Cuban offered Trump $10 million to the charity of his choice in exchange for an uninterrupted four-hour interview about Trump’s policies that would supposedly “make America great again.” Trump, who has been notoriously tight-lipped about laying out specific plans for the country, has so far declined that offer.

This could be good:

Cuban hasn’t specified whether he’ll try to speak with Trump at the debate on Monday, but one thing’s probably certain: We’re all hoping there will be an intense stare-down, judging from the boxing allusions he included in his tweet on Thursday (“It Is On!”).

That’ll be interesting, but Andy Borowitz offers this:

At a campaign rally on Friday, Donald Trump warned that Hillary Clinton is scheming to “rig the debate by using facts” in their first televised face-off, on Monday.

“You just watch, folks,” Trump told supporters in Toledo, Ohio. “Crooked Hillary is going to slip in little facts all night long, and that’s how she’s going to try to rig the thing.”

“It’s a disgrace,” he added.

The billionaire drew a sharp contrast between himself and the former Secretary of State by claiming that his debate prep “involved no facts whatsoever.”

“I am taking a pledge not to use facts at the debate,” he said, raising his right hand. “I challenge Crooked Hillary to take that pledge.”

He also warned that unless CNN, which is hosting the debate, promises to forbid the use of facts, he might pull out of Monday’s contest. “I’m only going to debate if I’m treated fairly, and facts don’t treat me fairly,” he said.

At CNN, a spokesperson assured Trump that the network would do everything in its power to keep the debate “as free of facts as possible.”

“We have a well-established practice at CNN,” the spokesperson said. “If the candidates start straying into facts, data, or other verifiable information, we have instructed the moderators to cut them off.”

That’s satire, or perhaps not. It’s hard to tell these days, but Kathleen Parker thinks that everyone is making too much of this first debate:

Is there anyone left in America who doesn’t know what each candidate thinks and what they’re going to say?

The only surprise would be if Trump were suddenly fluent in policy particulars and Clinton started making faces and giving the thumbs-up every time she thought she was winning.

Is anyone really going to change his or her mind based on what the candidates say Monday as opposed to what they said last week? Trump lovers are set in stone, as are Clinton haters. That’s one voting bloc. Clinton supporters (I don’t think there are many lovers around) are solid and entrenched, as are those who find Trump utterly unfit to be president.

It’s all over but for showing up at the polls.

This is not some college final:

It will be a popcorn-and-brew event – entertainment pure and simple. To the extent there’s a contest, it will be one of senior superlatives. Who’s smartest? Funniest? Quickest? Deepest? Most important, whose voice do you want to listen to for the next four years?

Questions of substance – who is going to keep us safe, build our economy, stanch the flow of immigrants, rally the troops, protect the innocent and elderly – have been asked hundreds of times in a variety of forums…

Everything you need to know for Monday’s debate, you learned in high school – how to size up a person, get their gist, seek their weak spot and watch closely how they handle themselves in the tightest sort of squeeze – exposed as 200 million eyeballs (that’s assuming two per person) are watching.

That’s about it:

Showing viewers who they really are is all that’s left. This, I think, is where people are today. The moderator who can get to the core of the individual rather than simply elicit yet another rote recitation of either facts or nonsense, as the case may be, will have provided a public service indeed.

So who are Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?

We know their résumés. We know their histories. We know their foibles and weaknesses. But do we know their characters? Clinton has asked who the American people want to answer that 3 a.m. call. In past campaigns, other questions have arisen. With whom would you leave your children? With whom would you like to grab a beer?

These are somewhat silly questions, obviously, but human beings aren’t so terribly complex after all. Most people think they’re pretty good judges of character. Most times, they can’t put a finger on what precisely tips the scale or sends the signal that this or that person is a mover or a maker.

It may be a simple gesture, a slight movement at a specific time, a tightening of the jaw, a sag of the shoulder, eyes that can’t stay with you. Or it can be something more discreet – an absence of presence, a missing something you sense rather than see.

Parker argues that people will watch, not listen – so no amount of cramming on policy will work, nor will all the contingency planning, either way, on what to do if the other says this or that. This is one of those finals where the best preparation may be to shoot some pool and catch up on your sleep. You know your stuff or you don’t – it’s too late now to do anything about that. The snide rich kid will try to get by on his quick wit and charm, even if that means he won’t look “presidential” – and the obsessive-compulsive policy wonk will try to look loose and open and pleasant, but she’s still a wonk. And they will each be judged on other things, to be determined. That’s how the American people will grade the first of these three final exams. There’s no way to prepare for that.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Cramming for the Finals

  1. I will probably watch the first debate, but unenthusiastically. This will simply be a made-for-tv “mud wrasslin'” match. Every one of us is “politics”, but it has become a passive spectator sport, which is a shame. We’ve been invited to a couple of viewing parties in the neighborhood. Of course, the analysis has already begun, before the first word is spoken.
    Today or tomorrow I’ll post my own online ‘op ed’ on how I see this election; my own small squeak among the multitudes. Somewhere near the beginning of the blog I will have this quote from then-NY Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, which I heard him say live, and in person, in Valley City ND in June, 1960: “It’s too bad so many people say that politics is a dirty business, when in reality it is the life-blood of the American government. When they tell me that politics is a dirty business I tell them ‘why don’t you get into politics then and clean it up’?” 1960, of course, was the year of the Kennedy-Nixon debate, the first TV face-off, shall I say. That June, the Gov. was vying for the 1960 Republican nomination, which later went to Nixon. Then, two U.S. Senators, Kennedy and Nixon, went toe-to-toe on TV. “The rest”, as they say, “is history”.

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