Debate Doping: Tour de CNN

Photograph Source: Josh Hallett – CC BY 2.0

Finally, a political development that gets me excited: American politics are going the way of the Tour de France. For years I have watched the debates and other campaign events, and as the candidates have crossed the finish line, I have wondered: “No way they did that on bananas, power bars, and sugary water.”

Now at last—thanks to the Donald Trump campaign—we may be getting a “clean” debate that will have the candidates peeing into cups (one thing both do well) as soon as Jake Tapper or Dana Bash signs off for the night.

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Obviously, there is the risk that the presidential campaign staffs will remain one step ahead of the CNN doping controllers. It happened with steroids in baseball and Erythropoietin (EPO) in cycling, but at least Trump’s testing proposal shows the good intentions of American democracy in not wanting a president elected on the strength of what Barry Bonds knew as “the clear and cream”.

Just this morning I heard a long interview with Trump handlers who were speculating about what illegal substances President Biden might be trying out during his debate preparation week at Camp David in the Cacoctin Mountains.

It shows you just how out of touch Trump’s medical staff is with high altitude training and oxygen tents. Technically, such a natural form of blood packing isn’t exactly illegal, but it would certainly give President Biden added red blood cells and an advantage when having to make sense of his policies in Gaza.

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I know many voters would like to think that there was a time in American politics, before doping, when candidates came to a political debate having had only a good night’s sleep, steak dinner, and long conversation with one of their aides on the tariff question or the dollar’s parity to gold and silver.

I know many American historians have written that Abraham Lincoln was the last “clean” presidential candidate and that he prepared for his debates with Stephen A. Douglas by splitting rails and drifting on the Ohio River.

It makes for uplifting history to imagine “Honest” Abe not to have been part of his team’s “program”—but sadly it’s an illusion to think that Lincoln, let alone Washington, Adams, and Jefferson, didn’t have a little help from white male testosterone, which apparently was administered to all of them at birth.

Washington and Jefferson were also suspected of having used what at the time was called “slavery” (now a banned substance) that provided them with income, education, and free time to dabble in political debates.

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For a long time in American history, debates were not part of presidential electoral politics. In fact, until the election of 1896 (William Jennings Bryan versus William McKinley) campaigns were run largely by surrogates, who (to use Tour-speak) were the lead-out men in the sprints and “drove the bus” in the mountains.

Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy restored debates to the campaign cycle, but it would be foolish to think that either man would have tested negative if the race had the controls that the Trump campaign is now proposing.

As early as his House and Senate campaigns in the 1950s, Nixon used what were then called “slush funds” ($18,000, not the PAC millions available to Trump) to make payments during tight races, and it was widely disclosed that Nixon dressed his wife Pat in a vicuña coat, which clearly (along with a cocker spaniel puppy named Checkers) kept Nixon on the ballot in 1952 to run as vice president.

Not that during the 1960 campaign John F. Kennedy was turning down what in the Tour used to be called an “atomic bomb” (multiple espressos and Coca-Cola consumed ten kilometers from the finish line ).

In Kennedy’s case, his “bomb” made it possible for thousands of cadavers to vote Democratic in Mayor Daly’s Chicago precincts, which tipped the election for the Massachusetts senator.

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Just because Donald Trump has some suspicions that President Biden is prepping this week with Dr. Michele Ferrari (a well-known feel-good doctor in Tour de France circles who “worked” with Lance Armstrong) does not for sure mean that “Jacked Up” Joe is blood packing or getting injections that will allow him to walk and talk like a forty-five year old politician.

The Biden campaign has routinely posted pictures of the president on his bike at his beach house in Delaware. Admittedly, the bike’s geometry looks fairly relaxed, his saddle is low, he’s usually wearing sneakers, and he seems to be running 700 x 38c tires, but those might just be Biden playing mind games with Trump, much the way Lance would ride up Alpe d’Huez in the big ring or stare down Jan Ullrich before dropping him.

Nor should one overlook the possibility that Trump himself might be bringing something more than Gatorade to the presidential election. Apparently one of the signs that a candidate is doping is that their hair turns orange and their neckties grow a few additional sizes.

Another telltale is when a candidate falls asleep while on trial for 34 felonies or spends fifteen minutes talking about sharks at a political rally. (Sharks are a classic stoner obsession—a bit like the munchies—as is the fear of weak shower pressure after you have applied conditioner glop to your combed-over hair.)

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Who doesn’t long for the days when American politics were the product of long days in the saddle, Mama’s pasta, and chocolate bars in feed bags. But that’s like imagining American democracy as the provenance of an engaged citizenry and Swiss-like referendums voted every two months.

You cannot divide your life between the mall and your phone, and then not have an election between two bionic candidates with IQs on the level of a Festina domestique.

At least rigorous testing at the debates will restore transparency to the political system, and once and for all we will understand how nearly half the country can imagine that Donald Trump is sane.

And we may even finally have the genetic code that explains how the Democratic party decided to gamble the future of the republic (without so much as a contested primary) on a candidate who otherwise is a dead man walking.



Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.