Campaign Relief: Look Out, Cleveland, Here Comes Cheney-Edwards Debate

By: John Hanchette

Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland is reportedly paying most of the $4.1 million in costs for Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate between Senator John Edwards and Vice President Dick Cheney. Part of that sum was a hefty $750,000 the school paid to the Commission on Presidential Debates for the rights to host the election undercard bout.

School president Edward Hundert told the media that university leaders “think it’s a great investment,” but my observation, based on covering election-year debates, is: You wuz robbed.

Here’s why. More than 30 million TV viewers are expected to tune in, but few of them will remember who the contestants were, much less where it was held.

The costs include upgrading the basketball gym into a debate hall, assembling a working press center to accommodate about a thousand in-and-out media members, and planting flowers outside the buildings. When it is over, Case will have an upgraded gym and lots of nice flowers.

Presidential debates, two or three each election year, are treated seriously, but the vice presidential contestants meet just once, and nothing much can come of it except maybe one clever put-down or lasting blunder. And no matter how good or how bad the performance of either party’s veep candidate, it doesn’t seem to move the polls more than a notch or two. There’s about as much “bounce” after a vice presidential debate as you’d get using a cement basketball.

Sixteen years ago in Omaha, on the same date as Tuesday’s debate (Oct. 5), senators Dan Quayle (Republican of Indiana) and Lloyd Bentsen (Democrat of Texas) met in a widely anticipated contest to show they were worthy number twos. Quayle was catching all sorts of ridicule in the press because of his gee-whiz demeanor and lack of experience.

George Bush the Elder, the GOP presidential contender, had introduced him as his running mate in a rather weird venue, a Mississipi River levee in New Orleans. I remember watching in amazement as the excited Quayle bounded on stage, ripped off his suit jacket, said a bunch of gosh-by-golly nothingisms, and generally acted like the bumptious cheerleader boyfriend in “Cheaper by the Dozen.”

It was a hole he had a hard time escaping, and that was a puzzlement because Quayle was more cerebral than generally portrayed by the media and had substantial respect as a legislator.

Moderator Judy Woodruff of PBS and her panel of journalists got right to it in the Veep debate in Nebraska by noting that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole had criticized Bush’s selection and that outgoing Secretary of State Alexander Haig had called it “the dumbest call George Bush could have made.” One thing led to another, and soon the sly and experienced Bentsen was famously telling Quayle, “Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.”

What followed? The official transcript of the proceeding reads “Prolonged shouts and applause.”

Quayle tried to come back with a meek “That was really uncalled for, senator,” but few heard him. The withering exchange has dogged Quayle to the present, but as he noted on Fox News before last Thursday’s Bush-Kerry debate, it only moved the 1988 Democratic ticket up one point in the polls, and Bush the Elder handily trounced Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis in the subsequent election.

One of the more interesting vice presidential debates occurred four years later in Atlanta on Oct. 13, 1992, and Quayle was again present as the incumbent vice president. Democratic senator Al Gore of Tennessee was there as Bill Clinton’s sidekick, and James Stockdale, a respected academic, Medal of Honor winner, and Vietnam prisoner of war, participated as Ross Perot’s running mate.

Stockdale, sporting a thick shock of white hair, was known as a deep thinker with some solid policy beliefs, but his first words were “Who am I? Why am I here?”

He meant it by way of introduction to an electorate generally unfamiliar with his credentials, but the debate immediately got away from him and he acted befuddled. He appeared to have wandered up from the audience.

Stockdale proceeded to violate the First Rule of Holes: When in one, don’t keep digging. On the subject of environment, he implied that anti-pollution advocates were “fanatics,” explaining “You know, you can overdo, I’m told, environmental cleaning up. If you purify the pond, the water lilies die.”

Later, the admiral simply declared himself “out of ammunition,” turned off his hearing aid, and left the debate to Quayle and Gore. Stockdale was ridiculed on late night comedy shows and Gore went on to become vice president for eight years.

Maybe Tuesday will surprise us all, but when North Carolina Sen. John Edwards takes on Dick Cheney, the results, however dramatic, may be inconsequential.

On the campaign trail (as noted this weekend by Tim Funk of Knight Ridder newspapers), Edwards has been trying to soften up Cheney on the Iraq war issue by quoting the vice president’s 1992 remark as defense secretary that Bush the Elder didn’t oust Saddam Hussein because he didn’t want the United States to get “bogged down” in Iraq.

Twelve years later, Edwards asks crowds in call-and-response format “Where are we?” They roar back “Bogged down!”

It matters not. Edwards runs four miles a day, and Cheney has had four heart attacks. The voters, in general, do not care. They’ll make their decisions on whether they like Bush the Younger or John Kerry.

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