I’ve misjudged people before — written them off, only to later realize that they had more character than I gave them credit for. But I’ve never experienced this phenomenon with questions asked of a presidential candidate.
That is, until now. I was wrong about the grilling given to Donald Trump by Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, co-moderator of the recent Republican presidential debate. It went like this: “Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women. You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals.’ ... Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president? And how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who is likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the ‘war on women’?”
From the moment the questions were asked, I thought this line of inquiry was unfair and inappropriate.
The questions had limited value in that they could only be answered by one person. It’s not like the other candidates were going to be asked for their opinion of Trump’s character. And the questions were accusatory in nature, and intended to embarrass Trump. Whereas the best questions try to get at whether the candidate might be a good leader, these were geared toward proving that Trump is a chauvinist. Finally, there are bigger fish to fry. With a shaky U.S. economy, the Iranian nuclear deal, a broken immigration system, mediocre public schools and all the rest, there were plenty of more important questions to ask.
As for Clinton, does Kelly really think that the Democratic front-runner is, with her marital history, going to be eager to rush into a discussion about men who mistreat women? Besides, the whole GOP “war on women” meme was made out of whole cloth in the 2012 election; there is no evidence that it even exists. So, all things considered, this question looked like a total misfire for Kelly.
Then, the following evening, we all got a look at how Trump reacts to criticism, and it wasn’t pretty. At the debate, the GOP frontrunner had responded to Kelly with a line that now sounded like a threat.
“What I say is what I say,” Trump explained. “And honestly Megyn, if you don’t like it, I’m sorry. I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn’t do that.”
Apparently, he would. Because he went on to be not so nice. During a CNN interview, Trump angrily took aim at Kelly.
“She gets out and she starts asking me all sorts of ridiculous questions,” he said. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her ... wherever.”
Trump later claimed that he was talking about Kelly’s nose. The real estate tycoon also said that “only a deviant” would think he was alluding to menstruation.
Yet, the businessman has a long and colorful history of especially harsh and personal attacks on women who stand up to him. His locker-room poke at Kelly was obviously an attempt to take the cable-news star down a peg or two. Now, in hindsight, Kelly’s question about Trump’s treatment of women was proper, perceptive and prescient. She read him right.
In assessing presidential candidates, Americans need to know a lot more than just positions on issues and his or her view of government. They need to be able to determine character. They have to see how he or she will respond under pressure. Most of all, they need to be confident that the candidate is guided by solid principles and dedicated to causes larger than his or her own ambition.
In dealing with the media, and especially his attack on Kelly, Trump has shown himself to be a first-class narcissist who takes criticism personally and responds in kind. He is good at playing the victim, refusing to say he is sorry and instead demanding that Kelly apologize to him for the question.
This week, on her first show since the flap, Kelly declared that she was moving on and would certainly “not apologize for doing good journalism.”
I’m glad Kelly didn’t back down. This was good journalism. The ensuing dustup proved it.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.