Back in 1960 when the first televised debate between JFK and Richard Nixon took place, they engaged in a respectful and intelligent discussion which, during the tension of the cold war stand off between free society and dictatorship, was seen as a shining example of western democracy.
Jack Kennedy went on to become President and led America through some of the toughest times in its social history including bringing the world back from the brink of nuclear holocaust.
Tuesday's vicious encounter - more cage fight than Camelot - tells the tale of the era we live in today. A broken America bitterly divided and beset by democratic decay.
Two candidates for what used to be the world's most respected office traded insults and personal abuse, with the sitting president once again behaving like a football hooligan, trashing the norms of presidential behaviour.
To watchers in other parts of the world, what we were seeing was a real-time rendering of American decline. It reminded us how American exceptionalism has come to be seen as a negative construct. America is no longer respected globally. To outsiders it is a country of mass shootings, mass incarceration, racial division and political chaos.
Germany's Der Speigel has called the debate "A TV duel like a car accident".
Italy's La Republica said "Never has American politics sunk so low."
Le Monde, the French newspaper, after the 11/9 attacks, said "Nous sommes tous americains" - "We are all Americans now", called the debate a "Terrible storm".
But this was no storm that will pass in a few hours or days. This is America's permanent political weather system.
Looking back to 2000 and the Florida election debacle, to see polling stations sealed off with yellow police tape presented a sorry spectacle of national self harm. It became so farcical that when Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe offered to send America election observers, it went beyond bizarre.
To the outside world, the Conservative leaning Supreme Court handing the election to GW Bush was little more than an electoral smash and grab.
Then came the ludicrously named "War on Terror". The watchtowers of Guantanamo... the horror of Abu Graib..... and the imperial hubris of the ridiculous "Mission Accomplished" banner declaring victory in a war that had hardly begun and was eventually lost.
Historians will put Tuesday night's television horror show in that same gallery of national embarrassment.
International viewers also understand the reasons why Trump is where he is today. His supporters sent him to Washington because of his unconventionality.
His supporters will have tuned in specifically to see a political wrestling bout with Joe Biden suffering an eventual smack-down. But it didn't work out that way.
Trump's failure to condemn white supremacists and his chilling words to that far-right group The Proud Boys to "Stand back and stand by" shows that he still has the ability to shock us all. And it is to be hoped that many Americans who have up to now supported him will have their eyes opened.
After the initial debate of 1960, there wasn't another one for 16 years and when the debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter took place it was marred by a half hour break when the audio broke down. Oh that we should have been so lucky last Tuesday.
The format for these debates is now, I believe, being reviewed. I'm glad to hear it. America can't tolerate this sort of debacle indefinitely.
The debates have lost their way. They're more about entertainment than elucidation. Journalists hype them like some sort of Las Vegas spectacle and afterwards, score them like boxing matches.
The highlights are moments of combat and comedy. Prefabricated zingers snuck in, caustic one-liners and attempted knock-out punches - they even attempt to adopt a vocabulary close to that of ringside commentary.
Ever since Ronald Regan mastered the art, these debates have rewarded star performance rather than expertise. Candidates now try to emulate Reagan style one-liners... jokes... putdowns.... and these are then run endlessly on the news for days afterwards.
Star value is now more valued in American politics than expertise or suitability for the role. It's not a job interview, it's an audition for leading man.
Competent politicians such as Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, Mike Dukakis and Al Gore have all fallen into the "No Star Quality" trap. But all of these were more accomplished administrators than the person they lost to in the end.
So as well as dramatising the electoral process, the TV debates have had the result of dumbing it down.
And on Tuesday night it hit rock bottom.
And America was the loser.
You are in error in stating that Mondale, Dole, Romney, Dukakis, and Gore were more accomplished administrators than the person they lost to - as Reagan, Clinton, Obama, and both Bushes each had just as plenty of experience, if not more. Trump is the only one that came in with less.
The 2000 fiasco was indeed a black spot, but it is debatable when the acrimony between the right and left that we currently see had its origins:
Some will go back farther, to when Newt Gingrich and Dole rode the 1994 midterms backlash against the Clintons and started a hardline agenda (akin to what the Tea Party had going in the 2010’s in reaction to Obama), and rode it all the way to Clinton’s impeachment.
Some will go back even farther than that, to the 1970’s and 1980’s reaction to the reforms of the 1960’s, and the resulting shrinking middle class and deepening economic and racial divides. I’ve often said that that vitriol directed at Reagan at the time of his Presidency has only since been matched or exceeded by Obama and Trump.
I think what we are seeing today has its more direct, obvious origins to the backlash to Obama’s 2008 victory, which resulted in the above said Tea Party and their obstructionism in the 2010’s. Obama wasn’t able to get anything done after 2010, once he lost the filibuster proof majority he enjoyed in the Senate from 2008-2010. He wasn’t even able to get mundane things such as judicial confirmations through. The latter is why Senate majority leader Harry Reid at the time, who was Democrat, had to end the filibuster for that (with the exception of Supreme Court confirmations), which roiled the Tea Party further. Mitch McConnell, Senate majority leader since Reid, and a Republican, continued to obstruct with everything else, including Obama’s last Supreme Court nomination, and got his revenge on Reid with his own removal of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations once Trump took office. This of course has pissed off Democrats since, and now there is talk of removing the filibuster for legislation. And so on the battle goes.
I agree with everything you’re saying about debates, however. They should really end. People can instead be directed to read well thought out plans rather than depend on sound bytes and who can deliver them in the most memorable manner. Elizabeth Warren is the only candidate that has recently demonstrated an ability to deliver such plans both in pre-written form and orally, but not everyone is as dually gifted, nor should it be an indicator of the ability to effectively govern.