The world agrees that Tuesday night’s so-called debate between President Trump and former Vice President Biden was a fiasco—and that it was all the president’s fault.
DecorumFar be it from me to depart from the consensus view of the president’s lack of “decorum” or “politeness” but I would just point out that these are customs more honored in the breach than the observance. I wonder if readers of these newspapers who are under 50, if there are any, have the slightest idea of what the word “decorum” means—apart from its being something that President Trump so famously lacks.
As the author of a book on honor (“Honor: A History,” Encounter Books, 2006), I think I am in a position to enlighten them. The idea of decorum was more or less invented by the ancient Roman philosopher and politician, Marcus Tullius Cicero, for whom it meant not quite the same thing as politeness, still less the sort of gentle, emollient behavior we now associate with that word.
For Cicero, decorum implied the ability to suit one’s demeanor to the demands of the occasion and the particular society in which one was placed at the time, what he called the “sensus communis.”
Thus it might be said that, put onto the debate stage in Cleveland like a prisoner in the dock before Judge Chris Wallace and called on to defend himself simultaneously against a series of accusations from the bench and verbal assaults from his opponent, he was entirely in keeping with Ciceronian decorum by responding in the fierce and peremptory way he did.
Such masterfulness, unwilling to await the permission of the gatekeeper media to express itself, might still be thought by some to be a valuable quality in a public man or woman, as it was in the days of the now-defunct honor culture to which it was closely related.
Another long-forgotten relic of the honor culture was the belief that the worst insult that one man could make against another was to call him a liar. Or the second worst to call him a coward. But a coward was, in those days, what a man would have been called who didn’t “resent” being called a liar—the word “resent” also being a term of art in the honor culture, meaning the lodging of a challenge to one’s accuser to engage in mortal combat with swords or pistols.
Fans of the old Hollywood Westerns will remember that the words: “Are you calling me a liar?” were invariably the prelude either to a retraction and an apology—or to a gunfight.
Few would regret the passing of the custom of dueling from the honor culture, which outlived it by approximately a century, but it did have the one great merit of limiting to the most extreme occasions—when resentment would have been not just decorous but mandatory—the taunt of “liar.”
This was then and still is a word that, hurled about promiscuously as it is today, makes debate impossible, as the old parliamentarians recognized when they cited the words “lie” and “liar” as “unparliamentary language.”
The Media’s WorkActually, Tim Stanley was mistaken. Mr. Biden did not directly call Mr. Trump a liar. What he said was said to Mr. Wallace, the nominal “moderator,” and to the audience and, therefore, said in the third person: “Everybody knows he's a liar.”
That is arguably worse—much worse, from the point of view of the old honor culture. It’s not just saying that he, Joe Biden, is calling Mr. Trump’s honor into question—and therefore that he, Joe Biden, is prepared to stand up to the consequences of such a calumny.
Rather, the former vice president was telling the President of the United States, traditionally afforded some respect merely by virtue of the office that he holds, that he has no honor to be offended. If “everybody knows he’s a liar” then he is in no position to resent (or revenge himself) on Joe Biden for saying so, even were such a thing possible.
Mr. Biden also showed his contempt by hardly ever referring to the president, even in the third person, as “president” or even “mister” Trump but only as “him” or “this guy.”
But then nobody but the media expects politeness in debate anymore, and they only of one side.
If the president had been calm and cool under his tormentor’s verbal assault, he might have replied thus: “What my opponent means by ‘Everybody knows’ is only ‘Everybody who believes what he reads in The Washington Post’.” I think it might have been a telling riposte.
All the same, I can’t quite bring myself to believe that Mr. Trump’s slashing, impetuous hot-blooded counter-attack in the only way now available to him to show his resentment was altogether lacking in decorum. He, at least, seems to have had some residual sense of honor in taking such offense—which is more than can be said for either Joe or his media helpers, who are much more practiced prevaricators than he is, in my view.