13 Takeaways from Last Night’s Commander in Chief Forum

Last night I attended the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) Commander-in-Chief forum in the hangar bay of the USS Intrepid, and got to see Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump up close as they answered questions from NBC’s Matt Lauer and a number of veterans in the crowd.

With a few hours of sleep between the event and now- here are some things that stick out in my mind in no specific order.

  1. The atmosphere reminded me of a high school prom for grownups. Who is sitting with who? Did that person show up with that other person? Did you hear that person wrote a book? Did that person start a non-profit? It reminded me a lot of “This Town.” People are not just there to vet the candidates, they’re there to be seen and to mingle. It was very networky- and being from outside of NYC, I didn’t know many people so I got to enjoy watching many of these interactions as they happened.
  2. If you don’t have a star on your wristband- you’re not asking a question.
  3. The choreography that goes on behind the scenes is impressive and meant to avoid a single awkward moment. The candidates were actors on a stage, taking their cues from well-worn norms of schmoozing and politicking. The whole thing was like a dance, where one misstep could tip off the audience to a mistake. This was both impressive, as it clearly takes practice to have this type of polish, but also felt inauthentic.
  4. Trying to say anything worthwhile in 10 seconds is basically impossible. I did a pre-forum interview with NBC News on Instagram and was told I had 10 seconds to say what I wanted in a Commander-in-Chief. I think I failed horribly, and did not enjoy trying to make a cogent point about the most important job in the world in one breath.
  5. Hillary just never quite looked comfortable last night. Matt Lauer jumped on her about her emails and judgement straight out of the gates, and despite giving good answers — she came off as defensive at times. I hoped Lauer would be similarly aggressive with Trump, but he didn’t really have the chutzpah to take him on in the same way.
  6. Trump has a logic problem. He also has a reality problem. These problems are fundamentally the same, he doesn’t feel bound to either logic or reality.
  7. Trump looks comfortable all the time- but rarely says a damned thing that makes sense. I went in with an open mind, hoping that Trump would be humanized in person to the degree possible. I came out of this more frustrated with his candidacy than ever. He’s a conman through and through, and I can now honestly say I think he’s the closest thing to an existential threat to our democracy that I’ve seen in my lifetime.
  8. Trump rambled incoherently about several issues. Let’s break down the issue of ISIS, and actually unpack the statements he made in about a five minute period on this topic. In short order he stated: Trust him- he has a plan but he can’t share it; he’ll get that plan from the generals; he doesn’t like Obama’s generals and would fire them; he likes the generals that support him and turns to them often for guidance; the military is broken; he has complete faith in our military.
  9. ^^Just pause and take that all in for a second.
  10. One more example of a lack of logic from Mr. Trump, then I’ll move on: Somehow Trump managed to be both an isolationist and a colonial style imperialist. He adamantly states that the war in Iraq was a stupid war, and that we should focus on building America first. Then almost in the same breath he says that the least we could have done in Iraq was “take the oil” advocating a colonialist resource-extraction model that is all but defunct in the 21st century. If he thinks the United States is disliked in the Middle East now, he can’t imagine what the region would look like if we’d attempted to colonize and extract oil as the spoils of war.
  11. Rule #1 of interacting with veterans — Don’t correct them on statistics that they almost certainly know better than you. The crowd was visibly frustrated when Donald Trump told a female veteran that her statistic of 20 veterans a day committing suicide was wrong and that it was actually “more like 22.” This veteran had just been identified as having lost two friends to suicide, and having struggled with PTSD herself… SMH
  12. Secretary Clinton received more cheers off camera than Trump, though he too had his supporters in the crowd. When both candidates departed after the cameras were off- the crowd gave each some additional applause. Including quite a few “Make America Great Again” and “We support you Secretary Clinton.” There were clearly some strong feelings on both sides, but it was good that the organizers brought a crowd with opinions across the political spectrum.
  13. Working on a personal security detail for the Secret Service must be a nightmare. Hats off to the Secret Service and NYPD, who handled a big and complicated event last night that went off without a hitch.

Ultimately, last night didn’t fundamentally change my view on the election, and I’m not sure many veterans in the audience or watching at home were swayed one way or the other. Despite this, I know the veteran community will keep watching as this race comes to its conclusion and will continue to raise the host of tough issues that are important to us. Plus, it’s pretty hard to look away from the spectacle.