Saturday, October 13, 2012

Three Was a Crowd in 1992

In 1992, nationally televised debates between the major party nominees for president were still a fairly recent development in American politics.

Vice presidential debates were newer still. The first televised presidential debates were in 1960, and the first vice presidential debate was in 1976.

But, what happened in 1992 was a first that has been unmatched in presidential debate history. The debates that year featured three participants, not two.

And the debate that was held 20 years ago tonight on the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta was even more groundbreaking. It was only the fourth time that vice presidential candidates had met in a debate (the vice presidential candidates did not debate in 1980), and it was the first (and, so far, only) time that the vice presidential debate featured three participants.

The Perot–Stockdale ticket really shook things up in 1992. In November, nearly 20 million people voted for it. (No state actually voted for Perot, although political historians will point out that the Perot–Stockdale ticket finished slightly ahead of the Bush–Quayle ticket in Maine that year.)

And it was kind of a weird night two decades ago — the night of the 1992 vice presidential debate.

In part, it was a vindication of the low expectations theory in which a debate participant is said to benefit from low expectations because just about anything good that happens for him/her during the debate will be seen as a triumph.

And, if enough good things — or, at least, enough not bad things — happen, an upset victory in the debate can be claimed — and accepted as plausible by most viewers.

For Vice President Dan Quayle, it probably couldn't have worked out much better. Widely viewed as a lightweight — and with the memory of his epic putdown by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen in the vice presidential debate four years earlier still reasonably fresh in the public's minds — expectations were very low for Quayle.

In comparison to the public's pre–debate expectations, Quayle triumphed in his 1992 debate, and my memory is that a plurality at least saw him as the debate's winner.

But, in my memory and the memories of most observers, what lingers is not the image of an unexpectedly deft and skillful debate performance by Quayle but rather an embarrassingly poor one by Admiral James Stockdale.

To be fair to Stockdale, it wasn't really his fault.

A national three–person debate had only occurred once — a few days earlier, when the presidential candidates debated — and it wasn't even decided until roughly a week before the running mates debated that Stockdale would be allowed to participate.

Stockdale, one of the Navy's most decorated officers, was a rather late addition to Perot's campaign as well, but he was thought by many political observers to bring a certain amount of gravitas, at least in foreign affairs, to the ticket via his military career.

But he was still largely unknown to many Americans.

So, on this night 20 years ago, Stockdale sought to capitalize a bit on his status as the unknown candidate. "Who am I? Why am I here?" he began his opening statement, paving the way for a clever introduction of himself to the viewers.

The problem was that he sort of ran out of gas — or, to borrow a phrase Stockdale later used to explain the abrupt conclusion of one of his answers, he was "out of ammo."

Thus, a distinguished veteran with a lifetime's worth of service to his country was reduced to a punch line, and nowhere were the jokes more biting than on Saturday Night Live.

Practically since its debut in 1975, SNL has made a name for itself poking fun at political figures, especially in debates. In that category, I would say that SNL has established itself as the gold standard. For more than 35 years, a presidential election campaign has not been complete until SNL parodies at least one of its debates.

After Stockdale's performance, though, SNL's writers apparently decided to poke fun at it but not to mimic it directly.

The result was savagely funny.

Perot (portrayed by Dana Carvey) and Stockdale (Phil Hartman) were going for a post–debate ride in the country — a "joyride," Perot/Carvey called it.

But Perot's true objective was to ditch Stockdale out in the sticks.

It didn't work, however, as Perot learned, to his chagrin, "never try to ditch a war hero — tenacious with a capital T."

Admiral Stockdale died in 2005.

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