Critic's Notebook: Hillary Clinton Makes Donald Trump Sweat — Literally and Figuratively — at First Debate

Hillary Clinton admirably kept her cool, while getting Donald Trump to blow his top, in their first of three televised debates.

The bar was extremely low for Donald Trump heading into his first presidential debate with Hillary Clinton. The pundits had essentially declared that if he simply refrained from, say, shouting out "Sieg Heil!" during the 90 minutes, he would appear suitably presidential.

The bar, it seems, wasn't lowered enough.

During the event moderated by NBC's Lester Holt, Trump was his usual condescending and obnoxious self. Not so long ago, Al Gore was raked over the coals for deeply sighing during one of his debates with George W. Bush. This evening, Trump constantly grimaced, scowled, shook his head and shouted out exclamations of "wrong!" while Hillary Clinton spoke. With the split screen keeping the camera tightly focused on both candidates for the entire evening, it became an endurance test for everyone watching.

Hillary kept her cool throughout, although you could tell she was going to need a deep tissue massage as soon as it was over. During every one of his attacks, she kept a smile on her face, although occasionally she wasn't able to prevent herself from laughing at the sheer absurdity of it all.

True to form, however, she did deliver the first outright lie of the evening, when she warmly greeted Trump by saying, "Donald, it's good to be with you."

Like so many candidates and moderators before him, Holt was unable to prevent Trump's constant interruptions and talking whenever he felt like it. To his credit, the news anchor pushed hard, frequently admonishing Trump and often directly contradicting him when he repeated such falsehoods as saying he had been opposed to the Iraq War. But it was to no avail, as the Republican candidate simply talked over Holt whenever he was challenged.

Hillary got so frustrated that she shouted out, not once but twice, for help. "Fact checkers, get to work!" she implored early on. "I hope the fact checkers are turning up the volume and working really hard," she plaintively added later in the evening.

Turning up the volume wasn't necessary, since Trump was speaking in his usual loud, blustery manner. And the fact checkers will certainly be having a field day refuting such things as Trump's denial that he ever declared climate change to be a hoax.  

The effort seemed to leave Trump parched and stressed, as he constantly took swigs of water, sniffed and had a visible sheen of sweat coating his face. On the other hand, Hillary — who after recently recovering from pneumonia should probably be making an effort to stay hydrated — managed to get through the entire evening without taking a sip, or coughing. 

Trump engaged in his familiar, insincere courtliness; after referring to Hillary as "Secretary Clinton," he said to her, in his smarmy manner, "Is that OK? I want you to be very happy. It's very important to me."

Hillary was clearly trying to get under Trump's skin, and more often than not she succeeded. When she referred to his having rooted for the 2008 housing crisis so he could profit, he interjected, "That's called business, by the way." When she pointed out that he wasn't releasing his tax returns because he probably paid no federal income tax, he crowed, "That's what makes me smart!"

She got in one of her best digs when she said that Trump "loves beauty contests…supporting them and hanging around them," subtly making him sound like a registered sex offender.

Trump's obfuscations were dizzying in their audacity. Asked about his frequent declarations of bankruptcy, he replied, "On occasion, we used certain laws that were there." When Hillary criticized him for encouraging Russia to hack the DNC, he coyly responded that the culprit "might have been someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds."

And he patted himself on the back for his past accusations that President Obama wasn't born in America, declaring that he "did a great service to the country, and to the president," for getting Obama to release his birth certificate.

"Just listen to what you heard," an aghast Hillary told the audience, although the word she was really looking for was "chutzpah."

After being attacked by Hillary for his "long history of engaging in racist behavior," Trump fought back. "When you try to act holier than thou, it really doesn't work," he said, dripping with contempt.

As is his wont, Trump announced that he has a "much better temperament" than Hillary, an assertion that was greeted by raucous laughter from the otherwise mostly silent crowd.

"I have a winning temperament!" he declared, apparently unaware of the meaning of the word "temperament." Hillary looked at him like he was crazy, and let out one of her few truly spontaneous responses of the evening: "Woo…OK!" she laughed.

The line pretty well sums up the entirety of this surreal debate that would have been entertaining, if only the stakes weren't so high.