The Great Debates

Well, the Debates are upon us.

In the Atlantic magazine, James Fallows has perfectly dissected for us Donald Trump's mastery of TV politicking, as demonstrated in the Republican nomination process. One can only hope Hillary Clinton's debate-advisers have read and inwardly digested his dissection. For it's scary how effective Trump has been, shattering all predictions.

How best can Hillary counter a performer of Trump's loose-cannon/fireworks caliber? Fallows analyzes Trump's tactics and skillset - but he doesn't offer much in the way of advice to our Democratic nominee.

For what it's worth, then, let me offer a few suggestions.

The first is: Hillary, be yourself!

Several years ago I was dragged by my wif to sign up for evening classes in acting, since there was a shortage of men, and the class looks as if it would have to be cancelled. Well, I didn't emerge an actor - the aspiration of most of my fellow students - but I did learn to "be myself" on television or the stage. My editor called me a few weeks after the course was over. I'd appeared on "Morning Joe," to discuss - and debate - my new book, American Caesars. ""You looked completely relaxed talking about the lives of the last twelve presidents!" he said. Clearly he was amazed!

I told him of the classes I'd just attended - and how our teacher, Stan Edelson, had told me not to try to impersonate anyone else, or pretend to be anyone else - angry, or emotional or cold or defensive. "Find what's in you that relates to the subject, the role - and go with it!" he'd instructed.

Second: humor. With a hundred million people or more watching, it'll be a tense moment. But remember, you won't be facing a local audience, you'll be talking to small groups of individuals in their homes, listening to you - nervously! Humor can break the ice. Not false humor, or a forced joke: just a determination to enjoy the chance to talk with your neighbors, your colleagues, your fellow citizens, in the context of a great American tradition that goes back to the Revolution and to Lincoln's debates - a tradition where sincerity, above all, is on trial. Pricking a balloon or provoking a laugh or a smile is human - it grounds us, and helps put us at ease.

Third: as I've written recently on this blog [America Strong], you're not alone, Hillary! To my mind the reason the Democratic convention was so successful was that it wasn't all about Hillary: it was about a Democratic party, and a Democratic team. That's your strength! So in the debates, talk about the issues with reference to your colleagues, proudly: from Senator Kaine to Senator Nelson, Senator Warren to Senator Kerry, Senator Klobuchar to Senator Manchin, Senator Booker to Governor Brown... After all, many of these will be in your cabinet, if you are elected!

Fourth - which is really an extension of the third: tell us something of the people you've worked with, over the years - and across the aisle. The people - not the positions, in other words. Tell us about them - as people, and as leaders - so that we see and welcome your experience as a team player - from the Governor's Mansion in Little Rock to the White House, and from the Senate to the State Department - not always successfully, but gathering experience, insight, friends, fellow Americans, allies. Every named person you can describe for us, within the context of the subjects you address, becomes a part of your profile in our minds - not only Team Clinton, but Experienced Team Clinton, through the people you reference.

And fifthly: no lecturing, please! Barack Obama, as presidential candidate, had to overcome the inevitable race test as the first potential black president. You must do so as the first potential woman president: the gender test. Lecturing won't make that voting challenge easier for people who are nervous; sincerity will, though. Not a pulpit, but a chair at the family table.

Sixthly: keep it simple! So many of the issues that face us as a society and as a nation are complex. While acknowledging their complexity, we look to a leader willing to think positively, not negatively - and who is seeking realistic, not pie-in-the-sky solutions we can understand. Viewers will appreciate your honesty in this respect, more than mastery of detail about issues and problems.

Seventh: self-deprecation! Too many people feel you cannot admit to mistakes, or being wrong. There's nothing the matter with being wrong, if you are sincere in trying to do right! Prove them wrong in thinking you cannot admit error or failure on the path to better outcomes.

Finally: embrace history! Think of your earlier autobiography! Think of all you've now seen in your life, in terms of the changes in our society, our economy, our world! Challenges our nation has faced again and again, and which we'll continue to face - as a team. Team America.

Dr. Hamilton is a presidential and military historian; he is senior fellow in the McCormack Graduate School, UMass Boston.