Dusk was falling on Hofstra University’s campus hours before the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Then, the birds came out.
They were large and black, wheeling wildly around the student center parking lot in a thick flock. From a distance, they looked like bats. Students said the birds often came out just before night.
“Bad omen,” said one to her friend.
But quickly the birds were gone and there was nothing to distract from the sunset. There was a peaceful breeze, and the birds settled in for the night atop tall buildings — two ways of looking at the same scene with dramatically different takeaways, not unlike the perspective of the two candidates showcased in the debate.
Winter is coming. Or is it?
The dark omen could have easily been Trump’s perception of the nation.
When the debate began, Trump used his standard apocalyptic imagery to describe a dark and fallen America that has been “stolen” from its citizens, where cities are so dangerous that “you walk down the street, you get shot.”
Trump’s strategy seemed to be to tie his vision of America to Clinton herself and establishment politicians like her. “Hillary has experience, but it’s bad experience,” Trump said in one of his more coherent lines of attack.
But he wasn’t able to stay with this theme. Instead, Clinton was able to get under the Republican nominee’s skin. In response, he wildly thrashed out: most prominently when he alleged that “you’d been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.” A patent absurdity and evidence of a debater on the ropes.
Clinton, on the other hand, serenely stayed within her talking points and danced around Trump’s doom and gloom by offering practical, if well-rehearsed, responses.
Nowhere was this difference more clear than in their answers on race relations in the nation, where Clinton delivered an earnest exposition on the potential for bias within and the work America needs to do to address it. Trump, on the other hand, seemed to view the question as a moment to talk about crime in America’s inner cities. He doubled down on stop-and-frisk policing.
And that was before Trump was forced to reckon with his history of birther statements.
Two visions of America, one dark and one realistic. Two strategies for getting the job: changing everything vs. tweaking. And, after the debate, certainly two versions of what happened during.
At least, in the spin room, where the candidates’ surrogates came to plead their case.
For a while, all eyes were on Trump himself, who appeared to do his own spinning. But he said little. “I thought it was a great success,” he repeated stonily, tightly smiling.
Afterward, the tight throngs of Republican surrogates did their best to convince that Trump had shown why he was the changemaker a wallowing American needed.
“I thought he did fine, I thought he did good,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions.
“He’s a change candidate,” said Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg.
Stop-and-frisk was a “pro-active solution,” ventured Bruce LeVell, who heads a diversity advocacy group for Trump.
But that’s just one way to look at things. With crucial undecideds tuning in Monday night, Trump’s wild performance wasn’t his most convincing. At least for this first night Clinton decisively staved off the circling crows.
Two debates to go.