Wednesday night's show -- that is, spectacle -- was sad and depressing by turns, and then, just for variety's sake, sad and depressing. It's a wonder that not just the audience didn't get up and leave but the chairs.
How many presidential candidates were crowded onto that little stage -- 11? -- and does it matter? Their bickering voices soon morphed into a continuous drone, as if a swarm of bees had found its way into the house and there was no way of getting rid of them. Even if peace was only a click away. But duty called, and so dutiful citizens all over the country -- political junkies, editorial writers, you know the sad sort -- stuck it out till the merciful end.
The unavoidable, irrepressible and insufferable Donald Trump remained the center of attention, like a huge blimp moored at some small general-aviation airport in the Midwest, attracting all the town's gawkers with nothing better to do than stand around and stare. To quote the always quotable Mr. Mencken, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public." No wonder The Donald leads the polls.
Carly Fiorina was there primarily to puncture Donald Trump's pomposity, which she did with aplomb. After one of his misogynistic remarks, all she said was, "I think women all over this country heard very clearly what Mr. Trump said." And that was all she needed to say. Unfortunately, she and Mr. Trump then went on to engage in an endless, and endlessly tiresome, debate about the progress or lack thereof of their precious careers, as if the rest of us much cared.
As for the other actors in this disappointing troupe:
Ben Carson was Mr. Congeniality, but that's all he had going for him -- not substance.
Mike Huckabee had the right idea: Just ignore The Donald -- rise above him. But the former governor of Arkansas also has lots of bad ideas, as when he pulls a Faubus and defends some county clerk's defiance of the law in Kentucky, or supports the Flat Tax, which has all the realism of the Flat Earth theory.
Marco Rubio wins the award for the most scripted, if not over-scripted, performance in this tedious production. As a rhetorician he brought to mind an operatic star confined to a little room off to the side of a dingy bar somewhere in Hoboken, for the setting was just too cramped for him. That this whole show took place at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library only added to its ironies, for the Great Communicator's charm could turn a small space into a great auditorium or vice versa, depending on the demands of the moment.
Jeb Bush's performance varied between boring and completely stultifying. He seemed to come alive only when defending his father and brother, both leaders well worth defending. But family fealty is scarcely an adequate substitute for real ideas and real achievements, which is a real shame. Because the former governor of Florida has a lot of both. But who noticed as he stumbled on, getting into arguments with Donald Trump when he wasn't just repeating platitudes?
In the prelims, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham stood out, as always. But presidential politics this year seems to abhor quality the way Nature does a vacuum. It's still worth noting that when Rick Santorum, the has-been out of Pennsylvania, dismissed Hispanics by saying the next president should be "fighting for Americans," Sen. Graham responded: "In my world, Hispanics are Americans." Just like Marco Rubio and the rest of us.
Viewers with patience did get to see the best and woist of New Jersey in the straight-talking Chris Christie and just always-talking Donald Trump.
As for Scott Walker, once a real comer in presidential politics, his time did indeed come -- and go. Mainly he just stood around and talked about the fighting, idealistic governor of Wisconsin he used to be.
Here's the moral of this sad story: Want to turn a roomful of otherwise decent, experienced, honest public servants into a bunch of bickering boors? Put them on the same overcrowded stage as Donald Trump and invite them to sink to his level. Too many did.
But not one: John Kasich, who is the presidential candidate Jeb Bush should be. He's got as outstanding a record as leader of another populous state (Ohio), but he refuses to be lured into silly personal exchanges. And so raises the level of public discourse, which should be the aim of all our leaders.