Camille Paglia: John Kasich Won the Debate (Guest Column)

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The social critic pulls no punches in evaluating the 10 top Republican candidates at the Fox debate.

The crowded GOP debate ended on Thursday and the analysis is coming thick and fast. The Hollywood Reporter asked noted social critic and author Camille Paglia for her thoughts on the debate and she didn't disappoint. 

Dear Hollywood Reporter,

Ten GOP candidates turned up for the presidential audition tonight at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena. They need some work. Where's Max Factor and Sydney Guilaroff when you need them? Here's my report.

Best,
Camille

Donald Trump

What's with the carpet-bombing Don Rickles routine? Does Trump have any facial expression beyond knotted, squinting scowl? It's a strain even to look at him. The entire debate begins with Trump getting booed for refusing to rule out a third-party bid. He has a slashing, entertaining wit, but his braggart narcissism is on painful display. He speaks in simplistic polarities of "winners" versus "losers," as if geopolitics were a jangling Atlantic City casino. He sets high goals but lacks real answers to any government issue. Trump is a Trojan Horse sent by the crafty Clinton machine. He has a bellyful of swords aimed at GOP hearts.

Jeb Bush

Is there a blander, more boring personality in American politics? The guy looks like the runny yolk of a fried egg. He's trying to be assertive tonight because he's been told he needs to project "passion." But when his lips move, there's still a big blank. Why the heck the major media hails him as the GOP frontrunner is beyond comprehension — except that big money has been showering down on him like powdered sugar on a donut. Why do Jeb's smiles remind me of a dimply grandmother? He could and should have been a high school principal. I don't see him on the world stage, holding the line against ISIS.

Ben Carson

What is this brilliant brain surgeon doing in the political arena? He seems like a cordial, genial, thoughtful fellow, but he's shy and diffident and seriously out of place in this pugilistic forum. Not only is he uncomfortable in the harsh spotlight, but he has arrived strikingly ill-prepared with positioning on major policy issues. At the end, he lands some sharp blows on Hillary Clinton, but overall he did not distinguish himself enough from the other candidates, nor did he even demonstrate much interest in the mechanics of governance.

Chris Christie

A refreshing flow of specifics from a hands-on governor, but Christie will never fly as presidential material. He has a braying, jabbering manner like an old-style big-city mayor of the Fiorello La Guardia era. There's something too baby-like about him. I was thinking Fatty Arbuckle? John Belushi? Under the bravado there's a hint of chaos. Maybe it's the mismatch between his ski-jump nose (not what he had in high school) and those bouncy plump lips. Anyhow, aside from his disqualifying history of thuggish behavior, Christie is too Northeastern provincial for nationwide appeal.

Marco Rubio

What a nice, bright, earnest young man! When he graduates from the college debating team, he will have a rosy future! Oh, er, he's 44 years old? Computer crash! Rubio is very smooth but also oddly slick. He seems caught in a time warp of self-stunted maturation, a son shying away from the Olympus of father-gods. Sorry, but this won't work in the White House. Try again in a decade or two?

Mike Huckabee

Very forceful when he calls for the abolition of bloated government agencies or asserts the "personhood" of the fetus, but everything else is rote, memorized, formulaic, even his gestures. Huckabee seems like a survivor from the Bob Hope or Art Linkletter era of TV pitchman. He's like a retro character actor you've seen in a hundred movies but whose name you can't remember. Despite his physical robustness, there's something unreal or porous about him. Voters must have a sixth sense for Huckabee's artificiality, because his presidential bids have always floundered.

Rand Paul

What a disaster! This was probably the worst debate performance in recent memory. I agree with most of Rand Paul's libertarian principles, but he certainly did them no favor tonight. He seemed surly, seething and discourteous from start to finish — like a petulant schoolboy kept after class. There was not an iota of presidential promise or gravitas. Who would want this squirming urchin as the nation's representative at an international summit? And what bizarre self-presentation — the overlarge Peter Pan collar and tie, the disorderly forehead locks, the unshaven cheeks and what sure looked like white highlighting under plucked brows. Caligula, anyone?

Ted Cruz

Way, way too much subtext. Big, strange-looking guy with an almost womanly face. Whip smart but on a monomaniacal mission for world salvation. Announces, to great applause, that his No. 1 attribute is he "will always tell the truth." Red alert: a bruiser of a politician who thinks he has a corner on truth. Cruz's expression is habitually close to a sneer, which he offsets with pleading, faux puppy-dog eyebrows. He knows history and military affairs, but he's no negotiator — he's a General Patton prima donna.

Scott Walker

Underwhelming tonight. Comes off as cheerful and upbeat, like a pleasant sitcom dad. A strong closing statement but seemed recessive and noncompetitive for most of the debate. Was classy and gracious (unlike the fidgety, self-absorbed Rand Paul) in turning respectfully toward Ben Carson as he spoke, but seemed to opt out from the general strife. Perhaps overconcerned with his reputation as a union-busting flame-thrower, Walker tried to be reassuring and just seemed limited and repetitious. A junior spectator, not a national leader.

John Kasich

Buoyed by the crowd's enthusiastic support of his tenure as governor of Ohio, Kasich came on strong in the debate. His brusque, animated gestures are awkward but manlike in a solid, old-fashioned way. Kasich is a genuine populist with working-class family ties. He made the Princeton-educated Cruz look effete tonight. Kasich was full of specifics about his congressional experience on the armed services and budget committees. I think he won the debate. Kasich is a mensch in a party of parakeets.

Carly Fiorina

Midway through the event, Fox News inserted a clip of Fiorina at the earlier debate of candidates who hadn't made the cut. For a surreal moment, I thought it was Dustin Hoffman in drag in Tootsie — it was exactly the same lilting Heartland accent. There is universal agreement that Fiorina won her debate hands down. Let's hope she is automatically promoted to the big league at the next GOP debate. Throw the male duds overboard!

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