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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Greatest Debate

As debate season begins, it is worth recalling—and reevaluating—James Stockdale’s 1992 performance.

James Stockdale

The day is near: the first presidential debate of the 2024 campaign, and presumably—since the prior occupant of the White House made himself unavailable for the inauguration of the present occupant—the first meeting between Donald Trump and Joe Biden in about four years.

Whatever happens next Thursday, when CNN hosts the first Trump–Biden debate of the year, there is no chance that the evening will be better, funnier, or weirder than the most memorable political debate of my lifetime: the 1992 vice-presidential debate between Republican Vice President Dan Quayle, Democratic Senator Al Gore, and retired Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale.

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As both connoisseurs of political theater and faithful viewers of Saturday Night Live will undoubtedly remember, this is the debate in which Stockdale, then the running mate of the independent candidate Ross Perot, opened with two questions: “Who am I? Why am I here?”

The willful misreading of Stockdale’s remarks—seen to be an acknowledgment of its speaker’s newness to the political stage rather than an introduction to his way of thinking—set the tone for the evening. The talking heads saw Stockdale as a shambling, out-of-it political novice. This, in turn, led to a wholesale mass-media rewriting of the legacy of Stockdale, who, up to this point, was widely and justifiably revered for his service as a Navy pilot in the Vietnam War. 

In September 1965, his plane took enemy fire over North Vietnam. He ejected and was promptly made prisoner. Having become conversant in the philosophy of Stoicism while a graduate student at Stanford University, Stockdale was equipped with an intellectual roadmap to navigate the confinement and torture that was to follow. “Epictetus was telling his students that there can be no such thing as being the ‘victim’ of another,” Stockdale wrote in World and I in 1995. “You can only be a ‘victim’ of yourself. It’s all in how you discipline your mind.” He was released in February 1973.

“Up to me,” Stockdale wrote, “within my power, within my will, are my opinions, my aims, my aversions, my own grief, my own joy, my attitude about what is going on, my own good, and my own evil.”

Stockdale presided over what he called a “society with our own laws, traditions, customs, even heroes.” The founding principle of this nation behind enemy lines was that American POWs should tolerate their captors’ torture rather than too easily disclose information.  

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This, then, is why Stockdale felt compelled to ask, on behalf of the country watching at home, who he was and why he was there. His life was utterly distinct from the smooth, vacuous Quayle and the uptight, self-regarding Gore.

“I had lived such a different life, and I’d been not just in the uniformed services, but I was in prison as a leader and as a senior officer in there, and the issues were great,” Stockdale explained in a 1999 interview with the journalist Jim Lehrer. He had not even counted on being on the final ticket: Perot had used his name as a provisional running mate to achieve ballot access, but by the time the fall rolled around, the cake was baked.

“The wheels were turning, and I thought my name had been removed,” Stockdale told Lehrer. “But it hadn’t, and he hadn’t found anybody to run with him, as near as I can tell.”

None of this counted among the cognoscenti, who subjected Stockdale to parodies, including a tasteless SNL skit in which Phil Hartman played the admiral as a barking buffoon. These days, the liberal media makes hay with Trump’s alleged disrespect to the military (and actual disrespect of John McCain), but back then, few paused amid the sliming of Stockdale. 

Over the years, there has been a gradual Stockdale reclamation project. As early as 1994, the comedian Dennis Miller issued a fulsome defense of the admiral. “He’s a brilliant, sensitive, courageous individual...but he committed the one unpardonable sin in our culture: he was bad on television,” Miller said. And the so-called “Stockdale paradox”—the notion that a person in dire straits must retain confidence about his ultimate victory while also remaining clear-eyed about his short-term prospects—is frequently invoked in business literature and the like.

Yet, as far as I know, few have stepped forward to defend Stockdale’s performance in the actual debate. At most, they will say that the admiral was unfairly maneuvered into a position he neither sought nor was suited for. But what if Stockdale’s performance illustrates not his own limitations but the limitations of our political system?

When watched again today, it is striking how similar Quayle and Gore appear: They are lacquered mannequins who, in complementary sing-song tones, reel off soundbites on the economy, taxes, health insurance, the whole bit. That Stockdale had not mastered these talking points was to his credit. That he stumbled over the terminology—“the trickle-downs and the tax-and-spends or whatever you want to call them”—was to his credit. “Whatever you want to call them,” indeed. 

Stockdale’s fumbling of the lame patois that Quayle and Gore had internalized reveals that, had he been elected to office, he would have approached governance with the same qualities of intellectual curiosity and boundless integrity he displayed as the leader of the POWs. His best moment came when he said he “ran a civilization for several years”—a reference to his POW years. “We had an acronym: ‘BACK US,’” he said. “The ‘U.S.’ could be called the United States, but it was ‘Unity Over Self.’ Loners make out. Somehow we’re going to have to get some love in this country.”

Would you rather hear the admiral on unity, or Al Gore on the environment?

Stockdale was plainly not a man driven by, or wedded to, an ideological playbook. At one point, when asked about abortion, Stockdale said, “I believe that a woman owns her body, and what she does with it is her own business”—an unsatisfactory answer for his conservative admirers. Yet Stockdale was a philosopher, and one senses that, had he been exposed to the idea that in the matter of abortion there are two lives to consider, he would have been receptive to arguments against the practice. Unlike the statues he shared the stage with, Stockdale spoke freely and, one senses, could change his mind freely. 

Stockdale came across as an untutored spokesman for the “people of the non-professional category,” who, incidentally, rewarded him applause at several moments, including when, after a typically mindless exchange by Quayle and Gore, he said, “I think America is seeing right now the reason this nation is in gridlock!” Incidentally, this pro-Stockdale applause has seemingly been memory-holed in remembrances of this debate. 

Counterintuitively, his very inarticulateness on stage revealed his strength; Perot/Stockdale voters could be confident they were electing men, not platforms.

Writing in the New York Times after the debate, Stockdale’s son made approximately the same argument. “We are learning how out of place ‘typical’ American families are in national politics,” James Bond Stockdale II wrote. “And I am afraid we are learning that the process prevents their involvement.” He also wrote, of Quayle and Gore: “They remind us always to doubt the motives of the man who is too well groomed.”

Years later, speaking with Lehrer, Stockdale acknowledged that he felt that “issues” were overrated in the selection of a leader. “I think character is permanent, and issues are transient,” he said. “Half the issues they are so polished in talking about are dead by the time they get into office.”