Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Wow, this is kinda shameless: the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal has just published an op-ed by Taylor Stockdale, the son of Ross Perot's 1992 running mate, Admiral James Stockdale:

Debates Don't Always Reveal Character

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.

... 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.

... 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 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....

Whoa -- wait a minute.

I remember that debate well. Stockdale's affect did seem odd if you didn't know his story. (Those who don't remember can watch those famous opening remarks here, starting at 7:14, and watch him struggle with his hearing aid here.) But that's the point -- Stockdale in '92 had virtually nothing in common with Palin in '08. Let's run through the differences:

Stockdale was an academic; he'd never been a politician. Sarah Palin, by contrast, has been running for office for sixteen years, and before that she was a beauty pageant contestant and a TV sportscaster. Unlike Stockdale, she's spent much of her life crafting a public image for mass consumption.

Stockdale was the running mate of a quixotic billionaire with no party apparatus behind him. Ross Perot, however, was effortlessly, if oddly, compelling on TV. What this meant is that Perot disdained image-crafters -- he wasn't part of an organization that relied on them and he personally didn't need them. That meant Stockdale didn't get professional help either, and it showed in his national-TV debut. Palin, by contrast, has the best image-crafters and media manipulators in politics at her service.

And then there's the most obvious difference: Unlike the candidate to whom he's being compared, a vigorous woman in her mid-forties who's had a pretty good life, Stockdale in '92 was a 68-year old man who'd clearly had some of the stuffing knocked out of him in Vietnam -- seemingly much more than John McCain, and without subsequent decades of wealth and public adulation.

Sorry -- Palin is no Stockdale. If she can't hack it, it's her own damn fault, and the fault of the political pros who thought she was ready for the big leagues, and who now work with her every day.

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