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Adm. Stockdale and other dumbest great moments in debate history

Adm. James Stockdale
United States NavyAdm. James Stockdale

As a quadrennial curtain raiser for the vice presidential debate, I’ve started a small tradition of paying tribute to Adm. James Stockdale. He is an American hero and also a symbol of something that should bother us about our political culture.

Stockdale was a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War. Shot down over North Vietnam, he was captured, beaten and held prisoner for seven years, during which he was routinely tortured but also managed to engage in enough resistance efforts that he was eventually isolated by the Vietnamese from the main POW population. Other POWs, including Sen. John McCain, have said that Stockdale was a hero to whom the other prisoners looked for leadership and inspiration. He was awarded the Medal of Honor. After the war, Stockdale wrote about the philosophy of the Greek stoics, served as president of two colleges, and recovered his health.

Just in case you haven’t been able to place where you heard about Stockdale before, he was Ross Perot’s running-mate on the 1992 independent ticket. Originally, Stockdale agreed only to be a place-holder on the ticket and Perot promised to replace him before the election, but for various reasons that never happened and Stockdale appeared opposite Republican Dan Quayle and Democrat Al Gore in the 1992 vice presidential debate 20 years ago this week.

White-haired, suffering from hearing-loss from his captivity, untrained in dark arts of televised celebrity and the even darker arts of political sound-bite-ology, Stockdale sometimes seemed dazed and confused during the debate, which became symbolized  by what he chose as his opening line of his opening statement, the rhetorical question: “Who am I? Why am I here?”

Stockdale died in 2005. He did not become vice president. An institute at the Naval Academy that is named for Stockdale is a center for “ethical leadership.” Those who know his story think of him with respect, admiration and gratitude. But, unfortunately, most Americans who remember anything about Adm. Stockdale remember him as a confused white-haired hard-of-hearing old joke, who mysteriously showed up in a veep debate and seemingly didn’t know who he was or why he was there.

The ruination of a great man’s legacy is one thing that should bother us about our political culture in the age of televised debates.

“Who am I? Why am I here” entered the sorry history of famous utterances during debates, torn out of context and remembered because they were supposedly dumb (Gerald Ford’s “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe”) or wickedly clever put-downs (Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quayle: “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”) or for no particular reason unless you were there and saw how handsome the guy looked in his suit and how regular-guyishly he wagged his head (Ronald Reagan to President Jimmy Carter, “There you go again”).

Then there are the non-utterances, like when George H.W. Bush was caught on camera looking at his watch while a member of the audience was asking a question. Seriously, did we really want to vote against a guy for president because he looked at his watch? The watch-glance was on my list of dumbest great moments in debate history. But my main point is that pretty much all the great moments are substanceless and ridiculous and told us nothing we should have weighed seriously in deciding our votes.

I strongly favor the young tradition of presidential candidates debating, especially if the chief alternative source of information is a 30-second ad. I wish (but don’t particularly hope) that someone could devise a format or find a moderator who could extract more meaningful statements. But when we have an audience that is mostly judging the candidates or their appearance, their body language, their rehearsed zinger or even their worst slip of the tongue, it’s hard to get hopes too high.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/11/2012 - 09:20 am.

    Hear! Hear!

    In college debate, I called this issue “talk pretty, don’t suck.” Meaning that you didn’t have to be substantive if you looked great while spewing nonsense and lies to win a debate in our shallow culture. That should NOT be the standard by which we judge our presidential debates. Yet, even Mr. Black did it just the other day.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/11/2012 - 12:32 pm.

      Squirrel killers

      I seem to recall the phrase from my kids’ debating.
      As for standards for judging debates, the question is whether Eric is trying to judge the -quality- of the debates, or their political effectiveness. What is vs. what should be.
      Remember; Stockdale did not get elected, Admirable as he may have been as a person.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/11/2012 - 09:25 am.

    If people

    weren’t people….

  3. Submitted by Josh Lease on 10/11/2012 - 10:57 am.


    A better way to remember Admiral Stockdale came in that very same debate, when he was asked about his position on abortion and said this:
    “I believe that a woman owns her body and what she does with it is her own business, period.”


    The moderator was so confused that a candidate would make such a short, direct, and honest statement that he was completely bamboozled for a time.

    A lot of politicians could learn from Admiral Stockdale.

  4. Submitted by Lance Groth on 10/11/2012 - 12:45 pm.


    Our entire political process, like our popular culture, is shallow and silly and not reality-based, so I wouldn’t hope for much.

    However, with respect to moderators, what we need is someone who is capable of being forceful, loud, and direct, and who is willing to ditch excessive deference to the President or his opponent in favor of extracting direct answers, and cutting them off when they run over their time. That’s a tough assignment, but I wonder if something as simple as giving the moderator a gavel and the expectation of being aggressive with it would make a difference. Bang! Bang! Bang! You’ve gone over your time, sir! Bang! Bang! Bang! You’re not answering my question, sir!

    What happened to Stockdale was a shame, but Perot shouldn’t have put him in that position.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/11/2012 - 02:32 pm.

      I tell you what

      I would have one hell of a power trip on being a moderator for a presidential debate. Imagine, getting to tell the person who is arguably the most powerful person in the world to shut up. Oh, and telling that other guy to quit pussyfooting around and answer the question, too. I don’t understand why moderators don’t do that. Hey, maybe they’ll never ask you to do it again if you do it right. But that one time…

  5. Submitted by Monica Manning on 10/11/2012 - 01:37 pm.

    Admiral Stockdale

    Eric: Thanks for repeating how the pundits mistreated Admiral Stockdale and reminding us all of his contributions to our nation. Every time I hear his introduction misquoted, I am angry. Keep on keeping on with your column. Your insights and analysis are always valuable.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/11/2012 - 03:05 pm.

    Although not a soundbite

    I’d add Wellstone’s disastrous “poverty tour” of the South.

    The crestfallen look on his face when he discovered the tarpaper shacks were gone did more to torpedo his dreams of a socialist revival than any conservative could have hoped for.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/11/2012 - 07:25 pm.


      I wasn’t here during the Wellstone era, and paid no attention to Minnesota politics until I arrived as a resident, so I can’t speak to any “crestfallen looks” on the faces of a deceased Senator who was apparently quite well-liked here. Since the South is demonstrably the least-affluent area of the country, a “poverty tour” might still be relevant if someone wanted to take such a trip. In fact, I couldn’t help noticing, as I made my own lengthy trip through the southeastern United States this past spring, that there are some tarpaper shacks still in use – as homes, not just storage sheds. They’re not visible, of course, from a commercial airliner at 30,000 feet, and even if traveling by automobile, you have to get off the interstate and travel a few “blue highways” to see some. But their residents are part of the 47%, I presume, so they don’t count – for anything – for some who are more affluent.

      Also, since we’ve never been a socialist nation or had a socialist economy, “…socialist revival” is an oxymoronic term.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/12/2012 - 09:17 am.

        I was here

        And very much aware of politics in general and Paul Wellstone in particular.
        He was never a socialist and never advocated socialism (national ownership of the means of production).
        What he DID advocate was social responsibility. There’s a difference, for those of you who have eyes.

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