“Atoll K.” “Dance with Me, Henry.” “A King in New York.” “Love Happy.”

These were the last films of Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, Charlie Chaplin and The Marx Bros. The kings of comedy who brought joy to millions. Not in their final films, however. Robbed of their youth and vitality, they all seem winded by time, less sharp and well beyond their prime.

Ever sit through Muhammad Ali vs. Trevor Berbick? Much worse. Ali’s last fight was sad. Please do not watch it if you love this man. Blame his handlers for letting it happen. No one wants to see an old man get beat up.

Which is exactly what happened Thursday night in Atlanta. Biden-Trump 2024 was sad from the start. Biden looked pale and unsteady, even just walking to the podium. The first minute of his debate performance was unnerving. His opponent may have lied throughout the debate, but the lie that Biden was up to this is the one that hung in the air.

That there was no joy at the CNN presidential debate desk post-show is an understatement. The shock on the faces of John King, David Axelrod, Abby Phillip and Van Jones said it all. Jones spoke for many viewers when he suggested it was painful to watch. “The con man vs. the old man,” is how he bluntly and correctly assessed it.

Look, I’m old in TV critic terms. I’ve aged well beyond even the 25 to 54-year-old demo. I didn’t used to have to look up simple names such as Axelrod, King and Van Jones. Could I have recalled all the facts and information that Biden, however haltingly, was able to summon Thursday night? Probably not, but pretty good for an 81-year-old is not likely to help Biden hold on to the White House.


If you stuck with the debate, Biden did get stronger, in voice and in steadiness. If you were checking Twitter and read his arguements, they seemed sound and stately. He was largely presidential in print.

Trump, however, seemed like Trump and in fact, even more legit that usual. There was no sense that this was a convicted criminal up against a statesman. It was Berbick vs. Ali — jab, jab, jab, no need to knock him out.

If you don’t think optics count more than content in a televised presidential debate, go back to the first one. Famously, it was said that people who listened on the radio to John Kennedy debate Richard Nixon felt Nixon had won. People who watched on TV, who saw Kennedy cool and collected in his darker suit and tan, felt JFK won over pale Nixon and his five-o’clock shadow. A picture says a thousand words.

That an 81-year-old is running against a 77-year-old for the hardest job in the world was always odd. That the Democrats let it get this far is a gross miscalculation. Had there been network television in 1944, there would have been no way a dying Franklin Roosevelt would have debated young and vigorous Thomas E. Dewey.

In Canada, the ramifications will be interesting. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at 52, is actually older than his two main political opponents, Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre and New Democrat Jagmeet Singh, both 45. All three, however, are in peak years politically, and Trudeau looks as young as the others. Yet he is so behind in the polls more than a year away from the next election there will be Liberals who saw the U.S. debate and who will say, “See? You can stay too long.”

Bill Maher called it many months ago when he coined the phrase “Ruth Bader Biden.” You can ignore calls to retire and stick around out of stubborness or a misplaced sense of duty and do great harm to the larger cause — in the case of the Biden-Trump rematch, the democratic process. The idea that the fraility on view in Thursday’s debate might give comfort to and embolden America’s enemies did not just occur to Trump and the CNN panel.

All of which sparks latent interest in what has become a dull afterthought — political conventions. When I was a child, watching the late ’60s conventions in the U.S. and Canada was like seeing a Marvel Avengers superhero movie. The stakers were high and real. Dan Rather got mugged on the floor in Chicago. Judy LaMarch swore on television.

This year, the Republican convention is scheduled for next month, in just a few weeks (July 15-18), in Wisconsin. The Democrats have their convention August 19-22 in Chicago. Make them matter again.

The idea, to me anyway, that the Democrats could actually turn this around with a younger, last-minute candidate does not seem that far-fetched. It won’t to Bill Maher either. (Watch Real Time tonight on HBO and Crave where Chris Matthews and Hawaiian congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard will be at the desk).

There is an opportunity to make Trump the old man on the stage if there is a second debate. The alternative is unthinkable. Nobody should have to sit through “Atoll-K– the sequel.”

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