Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Thank You Taylor Stockdale

Admiral James Bond Stockdale's youngest son has written a timely and thoughtful article about vice-presidential debates for the Wall Street Journal.

Debates Don't Always Reveal Character
My father was a model American

As Sarah Palin and Joe Biden prepare for Thursday's vice presidential debate, I am pulled back to the last time an unknown candidate appeared on the national stage in such a forum. It was 1992, when my father (John McCain's senior officer in Vietnam), Adm. James B. Stockdale, appeared on stage to debate Al Gore and Dan Quayle.

Anyone over 30 will probably remember the spectacle. Messrs. Gore and Quayle were engaged in a bitter battle when, late in the race, my father accepted Ross Perot's invitation to be his running mate. That decision created a rare, three person vice-presidential debate.
In an attempt to introduce himself to the American people, my father began with the philosophical questions "Who am I? Why am I here?" But as the evening wore on, he struggled.

Watching that debate from the front row in Atlanta was a surreal experience. 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.

Messrs. Gore and Quayle had arrived with armies of political handlers and were sequestered in large, lavish rooms to prepare for their one night to show each other up. My dad arrived with his family and one coach at the last minute. We were put in an RV just off the stage.

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.

He studied the Greeks -- specifically Epictetus, an ancient slave and stoic who espoused the idea that individuals have free will and absolute autonomy over all matters within their control. He believed we must not wallow in self-pity when the chips are down, but rather recognize that we have the power to choose how to respond to everything.

My father adopted this philosophy while a graduate student at Stanford University in the early 1960s. So he never took pity on himself -- ever. Not as a POW when he was tortured, forced to wear leg irons and to live in solitary confinement. And not after the debate. He knew he had put himself into that arena.

And yet on this particular evening in 1992, the country saw someone who looked confused and weak. Without knowing who he was or what he did for his country, most Americans turned off their TV sets and formed an opinion of him based on a 90-minute debate.

So while Mrs. Palin's background and political acumen are completely different from my father's, she and her family are going through an experience I recognize. They are trying to define themselves in a short time-span, within a loaded political context.

From personal experience, I doubt if someone can really be known in this type of atmosphere, and I empathize with her family members who suddenly have to explain things that shouldn't need explanation.

As for my dad, this will mark the first vice presidential debate since he died in 2005. I've wanted to write about it for a long time, but he wouldn't let me. Now I want to set the record straight: He was an example of what this country should be all about.

Mr. Stockdale, the son of Adm. James B. Stockdale, is assistant head of the Webb Schools in Claremont, Calif.
Thank you, Mr. Stockdale. Thank you for opening up this wound in the hope of educating others. I do remember this debate, vividly. I also remember the disconnect I felt from most reaction after that debate. But then, I've always been a Navy girl. I knew your father were brilliant and a bona fide American hero. I knew his questions were philosophical and not the indication of confusion. I clearly remember angrily arguing with people who made judgements about your father without even knowing who he was. Argghhh! I am getting angry all over again.

This is what people need to think about after a debate. The point of a presidential or vice-presidential debate isn't to score points. Or to come off smoothly and well-spoken. It's simply to articulate the differences between the candidates, their vision. It isn't to take home the forensic trophy. The point is for you to see what these people stand for. It's a forum to air ideas and beliefs. If on a particular issue you want "A" and not "B", you ask each candidate how they feel in that issue. If one guy wants "A", as you do, why does it matter how that answer *sounds*? Why should you care if it's *smooth*. The point is you wanted to know where he or she stood.
I'm tired of people discussing these debates in terms of style or appearance. I read one debate review that mentioned McCain's height as opposed to Obama's. WTF!! I know people out there pay attention to this. I know all about the inside baseball stuff on Kennedy/Nixon - TV/radio - win/lose. I know it and I am peeved it matters.

I want people to watch these debates and say "Who best reflects my views?", "Who articulates the bewst vision for the future?"


Stella said...

In an attempt to introduce himself to the American people, my father began with the philosophical questions "Who am I? Why am I here?" But as the evening wore on, he struggled.. Of course he struggled—he hardly got a chance to speak.

Taylor Stockdale's article relates the absolute truth—debates don't always reveal character. I do remember the Admiral barely had air time. I never thought he was treated fairly by the media: third-party candidates rarely are.

I am 100% with you about the debates: want people to watch these debates and say "Who best reflects my views?", "Who articulates the best vision for the future?" One has to have the desire to dig deep to get that information about candidates: those answers are not forthcoming in 90 minutes.

Debates are pretty much a sham: they always have been from the time American was established as a nation. I am touched by Stockdale's words. Thank you.

BostonMaggie said...

It's a shame to think what most Americans missed out on, not knowing the man that Admiral Stockdale was. I am always pleased when I read about the annual presenting of the Stockdale award by the Navy. At least some people are keeping the legend going.

Stella said...

Even liberals!