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People watch the debate between U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris outside a tavern in San Diego, Calif.

MIKE BLAKE/Reuters

Neither Kamala Harris nor Mike Pence is a creature of TV. They didn’t learn everything that guides their public persona or public utterances from appearing on a reality-TV show. Not like some people we could mention. Hint: Braying, bronzer-addicted, Benito Mussolini-on-the-balcony wannabe.

The U.S. vice-presidential debate took place in the dark shadow of Donald’s Trump’s anarchic stomping all over decorum at last week’s presidential debate. What tension existed was anchored in the possibility of more anarchy. That never happened. Harris played Harris and Pence played Pence, and the only stunning revelation was this: There is a shocking lack of competent moderators in the political-debate racket on U.S. TV.

Moderator failure was the dominant theme of the TV event, as USA Today’s Susan Page said, “Thank you” or, “Thank you Mr. Vice-President” close to 100 times trying to control the interruptions and, mainly, Pence talking beyond his allotted time. There are people who host deliberately riotous game shows daily who could do better.

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Then, along came a fly. While a vast army of pundits sat poised to prise meaning from Senator Harris’s frown or Mike Pence’s cold condescension, a black fly landed on Pence’s little batch of white hair. And it sat there, bold as brass, for a vast TV audience to witness. It was a galvanizing cameo, a taunt to both candidates. Didn’t Pence feel a fly on his head? How literally out of touch is this man? Didn’t Harris feel the urge to leap up, dodge the two layers of plexiglass and swat the fly? Maybe the fly was what she was smiling about later? Can flies even be commandeered to be in cahoots with a political candidate?

Listen, this might have been, as Erin Burnett declared on CNN, “The most important vice-president debate we have ever seen and will ever see.” But it’s still television, and two anxious, overprepared politicians dodging carefully around questions and engaging in tortured, toned-down demagoguery is not gripping. No matter how fanciful the spin, this was mostly a debate devoid of real meaning.

What mattered was performance. Harris is not entirely comfortable on TV, and it shows. The camera spooks her into unnatural facial expressions and a physical rigidity. Her poise is challenged cruelly by her uncertain relationship with what the camera represents – a vast audience out there that she cannot see. She lacked bite in attempts to nail the Trump-Pence ticket on COVID-19. Her most emphatic and goal-scoring moments came late in the debate when she spoke about racial justice. That stung.

Pence failed to overcome his innate smugness. He looked tired, his eyes red-rimmed, and his quest was to control the debate by talking on and on past his allowed time. On TV, he has the charisma of a mannequin but the privileged sensibility and attitude of a straight, white Republican politician from Indiana. (A quirk of U.S. politics is that there have been only a dozen vice-presidential TV debates, but four have now featured Dan Quayle or Pence, and both are your Indiana-based, straight, white conservative guys.) He couldn’t defend the Trump administration forcefully on any issue, but he can epitomize white male privilege with aplomb. It’s not like that is novel on U.S. TV, but it still has drawing power. Watch any network drama about cops, doctors or lawyers. Mind you, the fly on his head didn’t seem that impressed.

And nobody can be impressed by the predictability of how American all-news TV covers these debates. CNN pumps up the volume on importance, foreseeing a momentous occasion. Fox News goes cynical and attempts withering denial of importance. Before the debate, Tucker Carlson on Fox announced, “Nothing about the vice-presidency is interesting.” He then called Harris “a phony.” Watching, you got the feeling a Harris presidency could make Tucker scurry into a corner of the studio and whimper.

After the debate, Fox News featured Karl Rove, the former Bush administration official, announcing that Harris “failed” in the debate. Failed at what? “She didn’t do a good job of making herself likeable.” Well, that settles that.

As a TV event of alleged importance, it was awful. Anyone who needs to know any more about the political terrain or texture of the U.S. culture will have to wait until reality-TV star Trump comes back to debating. Everyone else is just talking about him in his absence. When a fly steals the show, the circus master, the figure who matters, is obviously absent. What strange starring creatures TV creates.

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