Tale of two town halls: Wrestling match versus picnic

NEW YORK • Viewers of Thursday's duelling network town halls with United States President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden were treated to a pair of telecasts as starkly different as the rivals they featured.

Mr Biden's ABC town hall had all the fireworks of a vintage episode of This Week With David Brinkley. Mr Trump's NBC forum had all the subtlety of a professional wrestling match. The election may hinge on which type of programming Americans want to spend the next four years watching.

Ms Savannah Guthrie, an anchor on Today, welcomed viewers with a friendly greeting - "We want to say, right off the top, this is not how things were supposed to go tonight" - that hinted only at the stakes for her and her network.

But if Mr Trump expected an easy night on NBC, former home to his show The Apprentice, he did not anticipate Ms Guthrie, whose background as a former litigator quickly came in handy.

In an out-of-the-gate barrage, Ms Guthrie pressed him repeatedly on his medical condition, if he had taken a Covid-19 test before the first presidential debate, if he would denounce white supremacy and if he opposed QAnon - questions that Mr Trump, who typically sits down with friendly interviewers, had avoided facing.

The President is a skilled dodger who has outmanoeuvred his interlocutors for four years. But Ms Guthrie repeatedly interrupted his filibuster attempts, throwing Mr Trump off kilter.

"I just don't know about QAnon," he protested, declining to criticise the fringe conspiracy group. "You do know!" Ms Guthrie shot back.

At another moment, when Mr Trump brandished a sheaf of papers to rebut a point - "I have things right here that will show you exactly the opposite!" - Ms Guthrie revealed her own set of documents. "Me, too!" she retorted.

Ms Guthrie kept up the pressure, cajoling him into a sidelong acknowledgement of a New York Times report about his US$400 million (S$543 million) debt load, which he had previously refused to confirm.

And she confronted him with a concern that even some of his allies share: "You're the President," Ms Guthrie said. "You're not someone's crazy uncle who can retweet whatever."

On ABC, the mood was different. Mr Biden and anchor George Stephanopoulos engaged in a sober policy conversation more suited to a Sunday morning public affairs broadcast.

Seated on a drab blue set, legs crossed, the men discussed the pandemic, taxes, the environment and the Supreme Court.

When Mr Stephanopoulos followed up on the effect of the coronavirus on the Democrat's tax plans - "Mr vice-president, let me press you on that" - Mr Biden replied: "Absolutely. That's a great question." He went on to cite a study from the financial firm Moody's.

Later, when Mr Stephanopoulos nudged Mr Biden to wrap up an answer, the candidate apologised. "Not at all," Mr Stephanopoulos responded politely.

The tone tensed up when Mr Biden declined, as he has several times, to fully explain his view on expanding the Supreme Court. "Don't voters have a right to know where you stand?" Mr Stephanopoulos asked.

That did not keep Republican strategist Ari Fleischer from complaining about what he deemed an overly easy night for Mr Biden. "NBC is an interrogation," he wrote on Twitter. "ABC is a picnic."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2020, with the headline 'Tale of two town halls: Wrestling match versus picnic'. Print Edition | Subscribe