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On day of veep debate, a tribute to Adm. James Stockdale

To me, what happened to Stockdale symbolizes much that is cruel, stupid and wrong about our TV culture and our political culture.

Adm. James Stockdale
United States NavyAdm. James Stockdale

The vice presidential debate (which occurs tonight between Sen. Tim Kaine and Gov. Mike Pence) makes me think about Adm. James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s running mate who shared the stage with Al Gore and Dan Quayle in the 1992 veep debate.

Stockdale was a great and honorable man, a scholar and a war hero, but a lousy living-room candidate. His life of national service and of taking a beating for America had not prepared him to stand on a stage and spin words for 90 minutes next two much younger men, both career politicians.

It horrifies me to think that Stockdale, who is remembered for his opening remarks in the debate (“Who am I? Why am I here?”) became a laughingstock. He deserved much better. He should be remembered as a hero, almost a martyr. To me, what happened to Stockdale symbolizes much that is cruel, stupid and wrong about our TV culture and our political culture.

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This will be third quadrennial tribute to Stockdale in this space prior to the veep debate, so yes, I’m starting to repeat myself. Let’s start with answers to the two questions Stockdale rhetorically asked himself in his opening. Who was he? And what was he doing on that stage that night?

Stockdale was a career Navy pilot, shot down while flying a mission over North Vietnam in 1965. He was captured and tortured during the next eight years – eight years – of captivity. He never spilled any important beans to his captors about his country. His shoulders were wrenched from their sockets, one of his legs shattered, his back broken. When he was finally released in 1973, he could not stand or walk. He eventually recovered much of his health.

He received the Congressional Medal of Honor and spent much of rest of his remaining Navy years as a teacher and administrator at the Naval War College, ultimately rising to president of that institution. After his retirement from the military, Stockdale served briefly as president of The Citadel in South Carolina. As a scholar, based at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford, he wrote about the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome. He is the author at least seven books.

He was active in seeking the release of POWs believed to have been left behind in Vietnam and, through that work, became associated with Texas businessman H. Ross Perot, who was also active in trying to find and recover the last POWs.

When Perot’s weird-but-interesting 1992 presidential campaign took off, he needed a running mate and asked Stockdale to join his ticket. Stockdale demurred, but Perot asked him to at least allow his named to be used as the campaign sought state-by-state ballot access, with a promise that Perot would find someone to take Stockdale’s place.

Before he kept that promise, Perot wigged out and decided to drop out of the race, claiming that the Republican campaign was planning to disrupt his daughter’s wedding. Perot later changed his mind and jumped back into the race, but by then it was too late to substitute another running mate before the debate, and also too late to do much to help Stockdale prepare. Stockdale’s highly developed sense of duty required him to go on the show.

Stockdale’s opening remark, “Who am I? Why am I here?” was a perfectly reasonable rhetorical device for putting before the TV audience two questions he felt he had to answer for them. It is sometimes included on the list of great debate “gaffes,” but that is both cruel and stupid. He did answer both questions in his opening statement. But as the debate wore on it became clear that he had no clue how to play a politician on television.

At one point, he was asked a question by the moderator and Stockdale had to ask to have it repeated because he had taken his hearing aid out. He didn’t explain that his hearing had been damaged by the beatings he withstood in the Hanoi Hilton (as U.S. POWs nicknamed the prison in which they were held and tortured). Instead, the hearing-aid bit only reinforced the impression that a confused, inarticulate old white-haired man had wandered into a situation where he didn’t belong.

Stockdale had some notes on his podium to help him through his misbegotten opening statement. He thought he had them memorized, so he wasn’t wearing his glasses. Under the pressure of the moment, he lost track of the flow, stopped, clearly looked lost, pulled out his big, unfashionable-looking glasses, looked down at his notes and found the words that had escaped his memory.

If you watch any part of the debate, you will see that Stockdale, who deserved much better, had been put in a position where he would come across as a mockable ninny, because he couldn’t hear and had little background in how to talk about public policy on television.

Stockdale should already have been more famous than he was, for what he had sacrificed for his country, and revered for it. And he should have been respected, not only for his heroism but as a leader of two colleges, a scholar and the author of many books. But he wasn’t. In our current culture, if you look like a fool on TV, then you are assumed to be a fool.

Fortunately, there was only one veep debate in 1992, as is still the norm, and tonight’s installment will be the latest example. The Perot-Stockdale ticket scored 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992, the best showing of any third-party or independent candidacy since 1912, but nonetheless got no electoral votes. Perot tried again in 1996 with a different running mate, but did much worse. Perot, now 86, is still alive but not a significant political player.

Adm. Stockdale disappeared from the harsh glare of publicity and died in 2005. The Navy named a battleship and several buildings in his honor, plus the “Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership.”