Thursday's debate between President Joe Biden and Republican candidate Donald Trump | Credit: Courtesy

ME OR YOUR LYING EYES?:  Thursday evening had already gotten off to a bad enough start. Before going up the street to watch the debate with some old friends, I had to have a chat with my root-canal dentist about the fate of my mouth. Short term, I found out, I needed one tooth yanked out and a root canal drilled into its next-door neighbor. Come back after the extraction, I was told, as I was handed an appointment card for the follow-up visit. Walking out into the afternoon’s golden sunshine, I slipped it into my wallet.

So maybe my teeth were a bit on edge when Joe Biden shuffled onto the Atlanta debate stage. For the record, I consider myself a big fan. Biden’s record of accomplishment is nothing short of amazing. But sadly, it’s been eclipsed by his utter inability to articulate a clear sense of vision or speak with anything that resembles passion.

Biden’s sole mission Thursday night was to radiate and communicate some serious mojo. On an animal level.

What we got instead was a man who at times looked like he’d woken up in the middle of the night uncertain where the bathroom was. As he spoke, too often it seemed, his train of thought became derailed and jumped the tracks. At times he appeared to stare vacantly ahead, his jaw agape.

Not a reassuring look for a nation desperately seeking some reassurance that Biden was not as old as his 81 years might otherwise suggest.  

The word “agape,” by the way, is a Greek term that connotes the highest and most selfless kind of love there is. Given Biden’s many years of tireless public service, that’s probably an accurate description. However, for my father — a yellow-dog Democrat in good standing — “agape” was another word for “slack-jaw,” a term of wincing disparagement he spat out while loudly walloping the back of one of his harebrained sons who, in the moment, he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe was really his.

This Thursday night, Joe Biden was a slack-jaw.

Good thing my father was not around to pound his back.

Like millions of people watching the debate for any credible signs of hope, my own jaw dropped. I gaped. My heart sank. It’s sinking still.  

In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m an anybody-but-Trump kind of guy. If anyone fits the bill as “pyromaniac in a dynamite factory,” it’s Trump. We have enough of those guys on the world stage already. They’re bad for business. And domestic tranquility. And the health of the planet.

Not to mention what passes for my heart.  

For my friends up the street, this was all too much to take. They started flashing back on where they were the night Trump got elected. Clearly, they have much recovering to do.

Me? I did what I always do. I sought refuge in one-size-fits-all jokes.

“Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln,” I asked, “how’d you like the play?” For good measure, I added, “Sure glad I didn’t step in it.” When that failed to elicit the desired results, I stole Groucho Marx’s classic line: “Who are you going to believe — me or your lying eyes?”

That last one was inspired when Vice President Kamala Harris sought to remind us of Trump’s many excesses during the debate. She was, of course, absolutely correct. But also totally irrelevant.

Trump is — and always has been — judged by a different set of standards than anyone else. After just being convicted on 34 criminal counts for falsifying business documents to cover up hush-money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels, Trump experienced a record surge in campaign donations.

Trump’s id monster is always hiding in plain sight. He’s the pyromaniac who shows the world his butane lighter.

He told so many whoppers Thursday night that CNN’s fact-checkers threatened to go on strike for overtime pay. He declined to answer basic questions like whether he’d abide by the election results. A lot of stuff he said just flat-out didn’t track. And then there was the really crazy business about post-birth abortions that he claimed took place in Virginia — huh? — or whether Joe Biden’s golf handicap was an 8 or a 6.

Huh?!!! For all of this, it was a remarkably restrained performance for Trump. For him, it qualified as being relatively “hinged.” Sure, he called Biden a few names — “Manchurian candidate” being one. Biden called him a few, too. The difference? Trump is all mojo. Biden — at least Thursday night — displayed none.

We’re animals. So that matters.

When I got home, I noted with relief that my gas oven is broken. No easy way out for me. I don’t think my air fryer can pinch-hit. Perhaps maybe if I were novelist wunderkind David Foster Wallace, I could figure out how to do the trick by sticking my head in a microwave oven, one of the great literary imaginations of his career. But I’m not. And since Wallace pulled his own ripcord a few years back, neither is he.

Less drastically — but only just barely — there’s rumbling among the Democratic Party elite of trying to get Biden to impersonate LBJ, who in 1968 announced he would not seek the party’s endorsement nor would he serve if asked. (The New York Times’ editorial board on Friday turned up the volume on that rumbling, calling on Biden to leave the race.) We are told the only people with standing to make such a case with Biden are Biden’s wife, Jill, and his sister. Given the bulletproof silo of family dysfunction that seems to surround the Biden clan, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

That leaves few options other than an all-out food fight at the Democratic Convention this August. I’m not holding my breath. The party apparatchiks will drink the Kool-Aid and faithfully recite their talking points before Biden allows Trump to take the country down with him. “It was a bad night, but everyone has a bad night,” they will say. “Biden has also had three and a half years of exemplary legislative accomplishment.”

Santa Barbara Congressmember Salud Carbajal says much the same, only with a slight wrinkle. “It was a sluggish night,” he says instead.

Here’s the problem. The people who need to vote for Biden don’t have patience for such things as “exemplary legislative accomplishments.” And what they saw — and we all saw — Thursday evening was a good man having an old-man moment, not three and a half years of accomplishment.

I would make the following observations.

I don’t want to hear any more sanctimonious screeching by my Democratic friends at how mainstream Republicans have sat supinely and spinelessly by as Trump takes their party — and the whole nation  — down the garbage disposal of history. The Democrats are doing the same thing right now.

And it’s not exactly news. People expressed many of these same fears early on, as the party canceled what passes for a primary campaign. “Yes,” they’d say. “We have to close ranks to stop Trump. But really, isn’t Biden a bit …?”

Yes, but …

And please, no more screeching about how Trump’s victory spells the end of democracy as we know it. I would say that democracy — at least of the as-we-know-it variety — was already pretty much DOA when the only choice we found ourselves forced to accept was between Biden and Trump.

When I got home, I discovered my wallet had disappeared. It was not in the shoulder bag I carry it in. This is when I stop telling jokes and start to freak out. But weirdly and wonderfully, all the really crucial stuff from wallet — my drivers’ license, my ATM card, my credit card, my AAA card, and my library card — had magically slid out onto the bottom of the bag.

I think the only thing I was missing — that was still in my wallet — was the appointment card for my dentist. For the root canal.

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