Deep Into the Weeds: Notes on a Debate of the Second Class

Paul Greenberg

10/16/2012 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg
The old editor was finishing a late supper at the bar of a restaurant near the paper, filling up page after page of a little notebook with scribblings that would prove as incomprehensible in the cold light of morning as they were even then. Much like the One and Only Vice-Presidential Debate of 2012 he was making himself watch on the supersized screen, which seemed to grow smaller and smaller as the night wore on. Like the debaters themselves.

The prelims were just starting when he eased onto a barstool. He could almost hear the barker's cry. ("Hu-rry, hu-rry, hu-rry!) The big show was about to begin. Immediate seating! Anywhere in the country -- so long as it was near a television set, the greatest soporific ever invented. Why think when you could just watch? No waiting!

The contenders on the screen wandered around each other, like wary wrestlers at the start of a match. Then the (non)action began, with one constantly interrupting the other, the other reeling off statistics out of any context the innumerate editorialist could appreciate. He wondered how the debaters could maintain any interest in what they themselves were saying, and then remembered why. They were politicians.

The editor knew which of the debaters he wanted to be the next vice president of the United States, but as the words and numbers accumulated, he began to forget why. Debate? This was more of a mutual hissy, like that of an old couple who'd said pretty much the same things to each other, or rather to the empty air, for the last 30 or 40 years, until the object of their nightly ritual now had been forgotten. If it had ever had one in the first place.

The night dragged on, and, like the debate, didn't so much end as peter out. The empty glass of Scotch beside his plate had lost its savor long ago. He thought of Harry Ashmore, the editorial page editor of the old Arkansas Gazette who'd won his Pulitzer writing about the Little Rock Crisis of 1957 in time for every day's morning edition. One night they'd announced Last Call at the Little Rock Club before Harry had any idea what he'd put in tomorrow's paper. "Make it a double," he said. "I've got an editorial to write."

There was real news back then. Politicians made it, not just debated it. Tonight the editor stuck it out at the bar only from a dull gray sense of duty, which wrapped itself around him like a shroud. A couple of other patrons passed him on their way out, for which he envied them. He could have used some fresh air himself. One of them asked who had won the debate.

"Both lost," he said.

Lincoln-Douglas it wasn't, and could never be the way these televised debates for the highest offices in the land are set up. Who was the Martha Raddatz -- that was the moderator's name this endless Thursday night -- when the Rail Splitter and Little Giant went after each other for seven encounters in 1858 that shook the nation with the realization of where it was and whither it was tending. Thought filled the air back then -- and humor, insight, rodomontade, faith, low jokes and high appeals, long disquisitions and sudden, irrefutable insights.

Across the plains of Illinois as that fateful summer faded, much like the old Union itself, the two men met and exchanged ideas, not grimaces and groans and smirks. They raised the level of American discourse, not lowered it, when they would appear in Ottawa and Freeport, Jonesboro and Galesburg, Quincy and Alton ... little towns known to this day perhaps only because great men debated great ideas there.

They say history makes men; they forget that men make history. If the times were different then, men made them so. As they make these times and these debates dull, stale and unprofitable.

Moderator? Who needed one in 1858? Any more than they are needed now. Unfortunately, we get one nevertheless. To moderate the views of Lincoln and Douglas in 1858 would have come close to historical sacrilege. Of course, both men knew and quoted Scripture; it was the lingua franca of the day. How out of place that would have seemed in this evening's diluted debate, which so often failed to rise even to the level of conversation. The "debaters" talked past each other, firing wild shots into the cold Kentucky night. You'd have to struggle to remind yourself during this debate that Abraham Lincoln was born in that state somewhere on the edge of the ever moving American frontier. Tonight thought, if any, was immobile.

By the time those long-ago yet ever-present debates began, Mr. Lincoln had already stated the central issue, theme and inescapable drumbeat of the times when he'd accepted his party's nomination for the U.S. Senate early that summer in Springfield:

"A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other."

It did.

Stephen A. Douglas began the debates as United States senator from Illinois, and would end the election the same way. But everything else had changed. Great ideas will have that effect. At least in a great country.

Moderator? All that Lincoln and Douglas had or needed were the rules. Each candidate would speak for an hour (imagine that, given today's limited attention spans), then the other would speak for an hour and a half (90 minutes!), and after that the first debater got a half-hour rebuttal. And the country stood rapt.

The newspapers printed the full texts of the great debates, though appropriately edited to reflect their own partisan prejudices. That much about journalism hasn't changed. See the New York Times or Fox News, and choose your own tilt. If you've got the heart.

These contemporary debates, presidential or vice-presidential, will never satisfy till they become, well, debates. Not quiz shows or collections of sound bites or whatever it is they have become in place of debates.

Who won, who lost? The old editor, as out-of-it as ever, remembered enough of his high-school debating class to keep a kind of box score, and wound up giving it to Joe Biden on (piddling) points. But was the decision in this down-card bout worth having the way he won it? He smirked, he grimaced, he groaned, he jabbed and feinted, and, oh, yes, interrupted and interrupted and interrupted -- by one count, 82 times in 90 minutes. That's hard to believe. It seemed like more.

But that's our vice president -- and our president's idea of class. By now readers can be forgiven for thinking that our vice president's full name is Gaffe-Prone Joe Biden. But tonight he kept harping on Mitt Romney's 47 percent comment, even though Mr. Romney finally had the wisdom, decency and just plain sense to say had been completely wrong.

Never mind, Joe Biden wasn't about to stop citing that stupid crack. His own many gaffes -- his too-long public career might be described as one long gaffe -- don't count. That's just Joe. He's just being playful, mischievous, you know, the way he was when he plagiarized his own biography from some British lord who'd given a rip-roarer of a speech. The great advantage of not being a serious man is that you can get away with anything you say. It doesn't matter, considering the source.

Maybe that's why Mitt Romney's goof still stands out; he matters.

Outside, the fresh but still sultry night air of Arkansas in early October embraced the old man. Breathing deep, he looked around, then strode off in the right direction, hopeful. And wondered if the country would feel that way the morning of November 7th.