Those who still get carded might not know of the successful TV series from the 1970s about the 1950s. One of the leading characters was The Fonz, played by Henry Winkler. He was a greasy-haired, leather-jacket-wearing parody of the ‘50s. He was also supremely confident. In one episode, however, he realized, possibly for the first time ever, that he had to apologize. It was agonizing for him: It came out “I was wr-wr-wr-wr-wrong.” Quite a struggle.
Similarly, I must admit that when I recently wrote that nobody would be watching the Democratic debate, I was wr-wr-wr-wr-wrong. Not that I have Fonz-like self-assurance; it’s just that us pundits are never supposed to acknowledge that maybe we don’t really know it all.
But I was, in truth, mistaken. The fact is, 15 million-plus people watched Hillary Clinton and the boys duke it out, even though it didn’t include ratings magnet Donald Trump, even though it didn’t promise to be a buffoonish slugfest as a result and even though, while lively, it was relatively substantive. Fifteen million people tuned in, even though there was playoff baseball on at the same time — and probably “Happy Days” reruns on some golden oldies cheapo channel.
Will wonders never cease? Granted, the Republican hostilityfests have pulled in way more viewers, thanks largely to “The Donald” and the other squabblers, but more than 15 million isn’t too shabby for such a polite-o-rama. Could it be that the American people are actually interested in issues? Maybe it’s that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are compelling personalities, along with the other bit-part candidates whose main purpose was to fill out the stage.
And that was without Joe Biden. He continues to agonize over whether to get into the race, a private decision that is playing out in possibly the most public way. It sometimes seems like just about everybody who has ever met the vice president has been recruited as a leaker, to put out the speculation du jour, or oftentimes speculations du jour. Will he or won’t he? Just when a creeping consensus takes hold that Hillary has recovered her mojo so Joe is a no-go, out comes a confidant to say that Biden is still decidin’.
But this is a decision that defies rhyme or reason. Actually, the vice president has openly shared his agonizing dilemma: Would the raw grief over the loss of his son so distract him that he couldn’t provide the kind of focus a presidential candidate needs to constantly maintain? There would be little time and energy left to tend to his family; his personal healing would have to be neglected. On the other hand, the cathartic effects of a campaign may be exactly what he and his loved ones need.
For sure, he’d have a fight on his hands. Hillary, and for that matter Bernie, are not going to pull their punches. They’re all friends, at least in the Washington sense, but here, where water is thicker than blood, the three would be in a battle that would supersede fondness and affection.
We’re witness to that now on the Republican side. Once, not very long ago, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush listed Marco Rubio as a protege, a buddy. But now the two are running for president, and the mentor and mentee are getting mean, trading insults like they’re old enemies.
It’s a little more complicated for the Dems, but sympathy for Joe Biden would be quickly overwhelmed by the win-at-all-cost mentality. Of course what might make it less jarring is that the Democratic race is not as totally abrasive as the Republican match.
In any case, Americans apparently are already engaged a year before Election Day. Even with the intense disgruntlement over the country’s problems, there’s still a feeling that the right president might bring about more happy days.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.