“Ninety percent of a director’s job is casting,” about a thousand movie directors have said over the years, from William Wyler to Robert Altman. It means: get the right people in the right parts so they can play to their strengths. As a filmmaker, I can vouch for the wisdom of this. Otherwise, you spend all your time pulling something out of someone that may not be natural for that actor, and of course the thing we love most about acting is when it seems the least like acting.
The Biden campaign would do well to remember this as it contemplates how to best use their candidate. He has a set of strengths that used to be not worth mentioning, because any decent person had them, but now they shimmer like diamonds against the rancid tar pit of his competition: his down-to-earth-good-guy quality. His sense of empathy, even sweetness. His readiness to laugh. He has a great smile—not calculated like Bill Clinton’s or Ronald Reagan’s, not creepy like Jimmy Carter’s, or joyless and strained like Nixon’s, but a genuine flash of fun that says, “Listen, folks, it’s a nuthouse out here, and we gotta laugh to keep going.” He’s no visionary, but he believes in the Constitution and international alliances and science. And he knows how to hold a Bible.
What he is not good at are debates. During the Democratic-primary debates, every time it was his turn to speak, my whole body clenched as if Nurse Ratched had entered our living room with a 16-inch syringe and the electroshock equipment.
He believes in the Constitution and international alliances and science. And he knows how to hold a Bible.
Not being a great debater is no sin. In fact, debates have nothing to do with whether someone is good at being president, because once you’re president you are never again put in a position where you get 90 seconds to make your case, then someone gets to rebut you for 45 seconds, then you get 15 seconds to rebut the rebuttal, and maybe another chance if someone mentions your name.
If I were on Joe Biden’s team, I would not want him to debate Trump. Not only because it will not show him off to his best advantage, but because it is pointless for anyone to debate Trump. Why? Biden himself should make the announcement and explain:
“Hi, folks. I just wanted to announce that I’ve decided not to debate President Trump. A debate with him won’t give you an honest idea of who we both are, because he is—and it’s past time to be polite about it—a hopeless liar. He cannot go 30 seconds without telling a lie. Maybe he thinks you’re too dumb or lazy to check. But I think you’ve got too many challenges that need real solutions to waste your time on an event where I’ll be offering my ideas on how to rebuild our country and he will just be making stuff up, mostly about how great he is, but none of which will actually help you. How could it, since it won’t be true?
If I were on Joe Biden’s team, I would not want him to debate Trump.
“Now, of course, Trump will say that I’m afraid to debate him, but that, too, is a lie. I’ve done lots of debates, all with braver, smarter, more honorable people than Donald Trump. Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders and I could debate our ideas for the best way to get all Americans health care. I can’t do that with Trump—he’ll say he wants to give you, as he puts it, perfect health care, the most beautiful health care in the world, even in the history of the world, when in fact he has spent the last three years, and will spend the next four, trying to take your health care away. He even tried to take it away during a pandemic. There’s no point engaging with someone like that.
“In my long life of public service, I’ve worked with presidents from both parties. And I always knew that even the ones I disagreed with were acting out of what they believed was the best interest of the United States. I can no longer say that is true. We have never had a president who did not care about the country he was leading, but we have one now. He cares only about himself and getting re-elected. Because the economy is in ruins, and he has shredded our essential foreign relationships, because the climate crisis grows ever more threatening, and because he mismanaged the coronavirus pandemic so badly that the number of deaths has exceeded 130,000, he cannot run on his record. So all he can do in a debate is lie. None of us needs more of that.
“But it’s important that you know where I stand on anything of importance to you. So instead of the three debates, I propose three town halls where you can talk to me directly about your concerns, your worries, your hopes. If you’re not satisfied with my answers and need to know more, just ask—and I’ll do my best to make you see the great things I want to do for our country. You may not agree with my ideas, but I will listen to you with respect and answer you with courtesy and the passion of my beliefs. I won’t call you names or make fun of your handicap or insult your war service. I look forward to sharing my vision of a restored America with you. Until then, take good care of yourselves and your loved ones so we can rebuild the nation we love so dearly.”
If Biden were to make such an announcement, it would electrify the conversation and, as a delightful lagniappe, derange Trump. The president could do an equal number of town halls with what remains of his base. Or he could just stay home in his bunker and play the role he’s played all along, that of a racist, grifting traitor, a failed businessman and Russian puppet, bullying people on his phone.
Which, I have to admit, has been perfect casting.
Douglas McGrath is a screenwriter and director based in New York