At least Stockdale appeared to be sincere

WILEY A. HALL

October 15, 1992|By WILEY A. HALL

Tuesday, James B. Stockdale struggled through every person's worst nightmare: He found himself on a public stage with almost nothing to say and no real idea what was going on. The only worse thing would be to wake up standing naked on a crowded city street.

Mr. Stockdale was a three-star admiral in the Navy, a combat pilot with some 37 decorations, a prisoner of war in Vietnam who won the Medal of Honor for his courage under torture. He was a scholar at Stanford University working on Greek philosophy when picked by independent presidential candidate Ross Perot as his running mate.

Yet during the vice presidential debate Tuesday night, the 68-year-old Mr. Stockdale seemed pathetically out of his depth.

"Who am I?" he cried during the very first moments of the telecast. "Why am I here?"

The audience laughed, but no one had an answer for the poor man.

In fact, the high point of Mr. Stockdale's prime-time debut may have occurred toward the end, when he was asked to comment on the unusually nasty tone of the 1992 presidential campaign.

"Eh?" he said with a sickly smile. "You know, I didn't have my hearing aid turned on. Tell me again."

Earlier, when moderator Hal Bruno of ABC News asked each man about their own qualifications to be vice president, Mr. Stockdale answered, "[Mr. Perot] has granted me total autonomy," then added, "But I haven't taken advantage of it."

Next came a painful admission: "I don't have the experience of these gentlemen," Mr. Stockdale said, "but I know I have [Mr. Perot's] trust and I intend to do everything in my power to keep that situation alive."

When asked to expand on his own qualifications, Mr. Stockdale looked stricken and made another painful admission: "Oh, I thought this was going to be an open period -- this five minute thing -- I don't have anything to add."

And, when asked to elaborate on his ticket's health-reform proposals, the retired admiral took a deep breath, then conceded, "Well, I'm out of ammunition on this one."

Throughout the debate, Mr. Stockdale wrung his hands like a desperate man. He fumbled with his glasses as he put them on. He fumbled with them again as he took them off. His lips trembled. He punctuated his remarks with long, uncomfortable silences.

Yet, for all of that, Mr. Stockdale at least seemed sincere, and that put him way above his two opponents, Vice President Dan Quayle and Tennessee Senator Albert Gore.

The professional politicians just don't get it. People want to see some honesty on the stage. They want to see people like Mr. Perot and Mr. Stockdale who have the courage of their convictions. Yet the Democratic and Republican candidates have approached these debates with all the spontaneity of the talking robots at Walt Disney World.

Mr. Quayle's Republican handlers apparently thought the public wanted to see him attack, so he hammered away at the "character" issue. No matter what the question, Mr. Quayle used it as an excuse to call Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton a liar who cannot be trusted.

For instance, when asked to elaborate on his beliefs regarding abortion, Mr. Quayle answered, "The three words in the English language Bill Clinton fears most: Tell the truth."

Huh?

Meanwhile, Mr. Gore's Democratic handlers obviously programmed him to emphasize the wretched state of the economy. And so, right after Mr. Quayle called Mr. Clinton a liar for at least the 20th time, Mr. Gore responded testily, "I want to answer that charge," then fell immediately into his stock complaints about the administration's "failed policy of trickle-down economics."

I don't recall Mr. Gore ever denying that his running mate is a liar. Does Mr. Gore secretly agree, or wasn't he listening?

My guess is neither man really listened to the other.

What we saw Tuesday wasn't so much a debate as two parrots reciting speeches simultaneously.

In the end, Mr. Stockdale showed more common sense than anyone on stage. He turned off his hearing aid.

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