In a healthy political culture, an event like the veep debate would be an extended opportunity for a citizen-voter to contemplate four serious questions:
Which of these candidates would I like to see as vice president especially, in the post-Mondale era, when that has become a more important job?
Which of these candidates would I trust as president, in that eventuality?
What does the choice of each of these running-mates tell me about the judgment of the presidential candidate who chose him/her?
To the degree that the veep candidates are carrying forward the larger ongoing argument about which ticket has the better ideas for governing the country, is either side making progress in convincing me?
Unfortunately, very little of this goes on. It’s almost impossible not to get sucked into treating the debates as a performance, almost like an audition for a part as vice president on a TV show. How they looked and sounded answering the questions gets more discussion than what they said.
One of my favorite facts from debate history: When the modern televised presidential debate was invented in 1960 with the four Kennedy-Nixon debates, the broadcasts were not followed by TV journalists, celebrity experts, famous former politicians, spinmeisters representing the two campaigns, focus groups convened for the occasion or any other gasbags telling the TV audience who won, what were the key moments or what each of the candidates had to do in the next debate to make up for the damage he had done to himself in this one.
Instead, when the first debate ended at 9:30 Central time, the networks resumed their regularly scheduled programs. On NBC, this was “Jackpot Bowling With Milton Berle.” I’m not that big a fan of bowling as a TV sport, and it’s easy to romanticize the past, but I do like the idea that debate watchers had a few hours, before the morning papers arrived, to think and talk among themselves before the media told them what they thought of the debate.
Now, of course, we don’t even wait until after the debate to get distracted by what others think. On CNN at least, where I watched the first two debates this year, the screen showed live word-by-word and sentence-by-sentence reactions by uncommitted Ohio voters who were presumably holding dials that they turned up or down to show how they were feeling about every word spoken and every facial expression of the candidates. I hate this, but I can’t help being distracted by the reactions of these distant strangers.
Finally, a word about a great American, Adm. James Stockdale, whose public reputation was trashed by a vice presidential debate.
Stockdale was the highest-ranking U.S. Naval officer captured during the Vietnam War. He was held more than seven years, most of the time in solitary confinement. He was tortured but did not break. He was the symbolic leader of all the POWs and became a revered figure in the community of POWs, their families and supporters, which was a cause in which billionaire Ross Perot was deeply involved.
Stockdale came home alive and went on to a distinguished career as a writer of books about philosophy, and a college president. He did not seek a political career.
In 1992, when Perot ran for president, he asked Stockdale to allow his name to be used as a Perot running-mate for the purpose of getting the Perot ticket on the ballot, with the understanding that someone else would take his place before the election. Stockdale agreed.
Then Perot wigged out and dropped out of the race (but without taking his name off the state ballots), seeming to take Stockdale off the hook for his unsought political career. Then Perot changed his mind and got back into the race and prevailed on Stockdale to represent the ticket in the veep debate against Dan Quayle and Al Gore.
Stockdale, who had never done anything like that before, gave a strange performance. He looked old, had trouble hearing, couldn’t speak in sound bites, and started with the self-introductory question: “Who am I? Why am I here?” Almost all of these things would count toward Stockdale’s credit if taken in the context of his life up to that point. But by the TV actor standards that we apply on such occasions, he became a laughingstock. His “who am I?” moment is generally included in the list of famous debate gaffes. One article this week rehashing the history of such debates suggested that Stockdale was to blame for Perot’s subsequent political problems.
If most Americans remember anything about Adm. Stockdale, who died in 2005, this is probably the one thing they know. He was a doddering fool who mysteriously showed up in a veep debate and didn’t know who he was or why he was there.
This is a small tragedy for one great man’s reputation. He deserves much better and is, of course, remembered for his life of sacrifice, service and even scholarship to a smaller number of admirers. An institute at the Naval Academy that is named for Stockdale is a center for “ethical leadership.”
Comedian Dennis Miller captured this small tragedy well, when he said:
“Now I know [Stockdale’s name has] become a buzzword in this culture for doddering old man, but let’s look at the record, folks. The guy was the first guy in and the last guy out of Vietnam, a war that many Americans, including our present president, did not want to dirty their hands with. The reason he had to turn his hearing aid on at that debate is because those f***ing animals knocked his eardrums out when he wouldn’t spill his guts. He teaches philosophy at Stanford University, he’s a brilliant, sensitive, courageous man. And yet he committed the one unpardonable sin in our culture: he was bad on television.”
I hope I remember to write about this again every four years on the occasion of the veep debate.