Hankering for the debates of days gone by


With the last Presidential debate tonight, Christopher Altieri longs for the debates of old

I’m dating myself, but I remember the 1988 vice presidential debate, in which Lloyd Bentsen savaged Dan Quayle in one of the great moments of verbal sparring in an electoral campaign.

“Senator Quayle,” began Tom Brokaw, “I don’t mean to beat this drum until it has no more sound in it — but to follow up on Brit Hume’s question, when you said that it was a hypothetical situation, it is, sir, after all, the reason that we’re here tonight, because you are running not just for Vice President …” and applause interrupted the panelist’s question.

“[I]f you cite the experience that you had in Congress,” Brokaw continued after a few seconds, “surely you must have some plan in mind about what you would do if it fell to you to become President of the United States, as it has to so many Vice Presidents just in the last 25 years or so.”

“Let me try to answer the question one more time,” Senator Quayle began his answer. “I think this is the fourth time that I’ve had this question.”

“The third time,” Brokaw offered, fairly making the junior Senator from Indiana’s point for him. “Junior” is not a reference to Quayle’s age, mind, but refers to his length of service when compared to the other sitting US Senator from his state at the time, Richard Lugar, by four years Quayle’s senior in the body.

“Three times that I’ve had this question,” Senator Quayle offered, “and I will try to answer it again for you, as clearly as I can, because the question you are asking is what kind of qualifications does Dan Quayle have to be president, what kind of qualifications do I have and what would I do in this kind of a situation,” i.e. one in which the office of President should become vacant.

He went on to offer 249 more words, most of them lackluster, several of them repetitive of what substance there was to them taken as a whole, but spoken in complete sentences and intelligible. Sixty-four of those words are etched into the collective memory of three generations, two of them yet living:

It is not just age; it’s accomplishments, it’s experience. I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.

Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy. – Sen. Bentsen

A wry, carnivorous smile crossed Senator Bentsen’s face as he shook his head slightly and waited for his colleague in the Senate to finish. When the Indianan man had finished, the Texan offered: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.”

It unfolded in the television age, and was rebroadcast on news bulletins and commentary shows through the rest of campaign season. In the Age of YouTube, it lives forever. Longer clips contain Senator Quayle’s weak-kneed response: “That was really uncalled for, Senator,” and Bentsen’s rejoinder, “You are the one that was making the comparison, Senator – and I’m one who knew him well. And frankly I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.”

As I recall, not a few in the commentariat at the time took the episode as a symptom of the degraded state of discourse in the nation. Senator Bentsen was the undisputed victor in the vice-presidential debate that cycle. His ticket lost the election in a rout.

Senator Bentsen’s quip would be Tweetable as a stand-alone, but one wonders whether the nation today would have the patience for the whole exchange, which plays as high rhetoric of soaring erudition when compared to the avuncular antics of former Vice President Biden or the familiar affectation of Senator Harris. Though not quite apples-to-apples, the 1988 vice-presidential fioretto stands as a monument to stateliness when placed against the truly miserable spectacle that was the first presidential debate of 2020.

Whether it is as Yeats said – that the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world – or whether we can do some work, yet, to find our reason and our sense, is entirely up to us in the present. We still have a Republic. The question is whether we have a mind to keep it.

Article originally featured on the Catholic Herald website (catholicherald.co.uk)

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