There was a lot of talk about leadership in Wednesday night's televised town hall with presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Given the billing -- NBC touted it as the "Commander-in-Chief Forum" -- that's to be expected. The word "leader" was used at least 26 times; the word "decision" was uttered exactly as many, according to a transcript by The Post, and both White House hopefuls used "judgment" to describe a key trait for being commander-in-chief.
Yet there were two words -- "listen" and "control" -- that were used just once, and each time by only one of the candidates. And no, it’s not hard to guess who used which one. Still, the stark opposition in those words not only helps to illustrate how Clinton and Trump define leadership, but how incredibly different they appear poised to treat the job.
In Clinton's case, she was asked by moderator Matt Lauer to describe what she sees as the most important characteristic of being this country’s commander-in-chief.
"When you're sitting in the Situation Room, as I have on numerous occasions, particularly with respect to determining whether to recommend the raid against bin Laden, what you want in a president, a commander-in-chief, is someone who listens, who evaluates what is being told to him or her, who is able to sort out the very difficult options being presented," she told Lauer, who suggested she was talking about judgment, teeing up a question about her email server.
The word recalls how Clinton's leadership style is not only repeatedly described, but how the candidate herself has structured her campaigns. She’s started off efforts at elected office with so-called “listening tours." In a lengthy analysis in Vox this summer, Ezra Klein said “listening” came up over and over again as the explanation for what people misunderstand about Clinton. “It sounds like a caricature of what we would say about a female politician,” he wrote. Yet in the course of the primary, "Clinton proved the more effective listener — and, particularly, the more effective coalition builder."
Meanwhile, that word didn’t show up in the Trump half of the forum. When asked a similar question by Lauer about experiences that have prepared him to be commander-in-chief, Trump cited his business and his judgment. Later in the discussion, he bizarrely heaped praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin, something the GOP nominee has repeatedly dished out.
The word "control" falls in that extraordinary passage, in which Trump not only cites Putin's approval rating but says "if he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him." Then he goes on to say Putin "is really very much a leader. I mean, you can say, oh, isn't that a terrible thing -- the man has very strong control over a country. Now it's a very different system, and I don't happen to like the system. But certainly, in that system, he's been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader."
It's possible Trump is saying that Putin's control of Russia is the "terrible thing" some might say can happen in a "different system," one led by a former KGB agent who runs a country that stifles dissent and a free press. But consider Trump's past statements, and a more likely interpretation seems to be that he's instead calling Putin's “strong control" evidence of his leadership.
To wit: Late last year, "Morning Joe" host Joe Scarborough asked Trump why he welcomed a compliment from Putin, and Trump responded that “he’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country." In his convention speech in July, Trump said “nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” reflecting a hierarchical, dominant leadership style.
Recently, Trump said he would demand that military generals (a group that Trump has said knows less about ISIS than he does) produce a plan for defeating ISIS within his first 30 days in office. And back in March during a primary debate, Trump explained that he could get military officials to follow his orders simply because "I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about."
Clinton’s talk of “listening” and Trump’s talk of “control” should surprise no one. They reinforce what is already said about both candidates and how they might lead. They are but two words in a sea of thousands from Wednesday night's forum. Yet if there were ever a simpler way of representing the vast chasm in leadership styles that seems to exist between these two historically different candidates for president, it's hard to see it.
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