Anyone over 30 will probably remember the spectacle. (…)
My father, a bona fide war hero, was trying to adapt to a format of discourse utterly foreign to him.
The debate hall was noisy, hot and nasty. My mom took a bad fall just before coming out to sit down. She, the strongest woman I know, broke into tears as she was overcome with emotion. Her four sons tried to console her.
Dad entered the race reluctantly, and only due to the deep gratitude he had for the aid Mr. Perot extended to him and my mom while he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
As everyone saw that evening, he was not a politician. He was a fighter-pilot ace, a Medal of Honor recipient, and a wonderful dad and human being. During his eight years as a POW, he slit his scalp and beat his face with a stool to prevent his captors from parading him in the streets for propaganda purposes. He gave starving men his food rations when he himself was starving. And at home, after his release in 1973, he was a respected leader, scholar and writer. He considered himself a philosopher.
I watched that debate too. I knew nothing about Stockdale; in fact, I don’t even remember him being introduced as “Admiral”. Not that that would have mattered to me. I was still a vestigal lefty, military-hating peacenik, although just barely.
I squirmed in my seat as Stockdale struggled to fit his answers into the tiny allotment of time, and the audience snickered.
Somehow, the next day, amid all the vicious mockery of Stockdale’s performance, and of Perot for selecting him, I learned about the Admiral’s past as a brave POW, and his current life as a college professor. Perot must have said as much in an angry post-debate interview.
That evening, my then-best friend (now my key ex-9/11 friend, as I call them) came over. She repeated all the late night talk show hosts’ jokes about Stockdale, and — to her surprise, and mine — I exploded:
“Don’t you know this guy was the leader of his fellow POWs, who kept them going all that time? Don’t you know the guy teaches, like, rhetoric or something at some Ivy League college? Jesus, we complain that politicians speak in soundbites and when someone comes along who doesn’t, we complain about that!”
Chastened, my friend admitted she hadn’t known or thought of any of that. And why would she have? In those pre-internet days, that’s just how it was for most people.
Later I had the creepy yet gratifying experience of catching a Dennis Miller routine about Stockdale that put everything I was feeling into words. He often says that debate was a political turning point for him. It was for me too.
Some people call themselves “9/11 conservatives” but I guess I’m more a “Stockdale” conservative myself. It had nothing to do with anything Stockdale said that night — any policy ideas or great philosophical notions (which he wasn’t able to articulate in the format anyway…)
It was the reaction of kneejerk liberals and leftists to Stockdale’s performance that turned me off — just as most people join or leave religions based not upon apologetics and theology but upon the behaviour of other believers.
Anyway, here’s part of Dennis Miller’s rant (alas, the video itself is no longer available):
“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.
“Somewhere out there Paddy Chayefsky must be laughing his ass off. …”