Jewish World Review Oct. 16, 2012/ 29 Tishrei, 5773
Deep into the weeds: Notes on a debate of the second class
By Paul Greenberg
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | 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 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
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
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
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
"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."
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
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
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
Maybe that's why
Outside, the fresh but still sultry night air of
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in the media and Washington consider "must-reading". Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.
if (strpos(, "printer_friendly") === 0)
=<< © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
© 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.