Celebrity met democracy this week on Long Island, and the buzz can still be heard.
For all the legitimate issues that it covered, Monday’s presidential debate at Hofstra University had a tabloid gossip-page subtext.
Days before the event, TV celeb Mark Cuban taunted his reality-show nemesis Donald Trump with the media message that he’d be up in the front row.
Trump responded by tweeting: “If dopey Mark Cuban of failed Benefactor fame wants to sit in the front row, perhaps I will put Jennifer Flowers [sic] right alongside of him!”
Turns out Cuban was in the house, but had no such seat. He admitted it was a bluff meant to psych out Trump.
Flowers (first name Gennifer) caused a sensation nearly a generation ago by revealing an extramarital sexual relationship with President Bill Clinton.
She wasn’t there, and in the run-up to the debate, Trump’s camp explained that he was just “mocking” the Clinton campaign and that Flowers was never invited.
Once underway, the main event had the candidates declaiming on matters of trade, terrorism, crime, race and taxes.
But the sort of stuff that made TMZ big lurked close behind.
Attacking Trump, Clinton said: “He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them. And he called this woman ‘Miss Piggy.’ Then he called her ‘Miss Housekeeping,’ because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name.
“Her name is Alicia Machado, and she has become a U.S. citizen, and you can bet . . . she’s going to vote this November.”
The Venezuelan-born Machado won the Miss Universe pageant in 1996. She struck back in a CNN interview on Wednesday, calling Trump “aggressive” and “really rude” and “really a bad person with me.”
Soon, Fox News came back with a complicated report about Machado’s romantic involvement 20 years ago with a man accused in Venezuela of attempted murder and a purported threat to a judge. She was never charged.
All this chatter lands quite far from what you might think of as politics. But the merits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership can’t compete with it for racy content.
Maybe at some point, Machado can be asked for a discourse on cross-border corporate trade deals.
Trump’s controversial insistence that he opposed the Iraq invasion from the outset runs against comments he made — fittingly — on the Howard Stern radio show.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Trump responded when Stern asked if he supported it in September 2002. “I wish the first time it was done correctly.”
During the debate, the candidate gave this version of that interview: “The first time anyone’s asked me that, I said, very lightly, I don’t know, maybe, who knows?”
For backup, Trump cited conversations he had later with another media star, Long Island-raised Sean Hannity — who also appears in a Trump campaign promotional video, along with touting the candidate in his Fox News commentaries.
Then there was the Rosie O’Donnell moment, when Trump complained about Clinton commercials painting him as anti-woman.
“Some of it’s said in entertainment,” Trump explained.
“Some of it’s said — somebody who’s been very vicious to me, Rosie O’Donnell, I said very tough things to her, and I think everybody would agree that she deserves it and nobody feels sorry for her.”
Afterward, Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani — no stranger to tabloid soap operas — walked into the TV lights and dropped one of the great scandal-page names of the 1990s.
“She attacked Monica Lewinsky,” the former mayor said of candidate Clinton. “And after being married to Bill Clinton for 20 years, if you didn’t know the moment Monica Lewinsky said that Bill Clinton violated her that she was telling the truth, then you’re too stupid to be president.”
Forget Mark Cuban. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog could just as well have been sitting in the front row at Hofstra.