Folksy philosopher Stockdale tries to figure out fast fling with politics

October 25, 1992|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,Contributing Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- James B. Stockdale couldn't quite hea over the telephone at times, fumbled a bit for words, then dropped the phone with a clatter onto the floor. Still, he carried on with aplomb in a conversation last week that included references to Greek philosophers and King Lear.

In a year when the public has cried out for "real people," not polished politicians, there was a charming freshness to the manner in which Ross Perot's running mate conducted a telephone interview.

It was something of a reprise of his TV debate performance earlier this month, when the folksy, snowy-haired Mr. Stockdale stammered, paused to put on his reading glasses and missed one question because his hearing aid was off. He was nonetheless applauded then as a kind of everyman thrust into the world of glib professional politics.

As the final week of the presidential campaign approaches, Mr. Stockdale, 68, has been an almost invisible vice presidential candidate, operating out of his office at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, where he is a Greek philosophy scholar. He has no spin doctors, handlers or limousines, only a staff of three or four "helpers," as his wife, Sybil, calls them.

Yet this week he says he will emerge from obscurity and enter, albeit at the 11th hour, the political big time. He plans to appear at rallies in cities across the country and will step up his media appearances, which so far have been relatively few. (Pressed for time, he often has had to apologetically squeeze in press interviews on the telephone).

As of Friday he had not determined his schedule, but said he would campaign separately from Perot, who will make a rare public appearance at a rally today in New Jersey.

"This is going to be a week to remember," he said. "I'm going to throw myself into it."

A retired admiral who won a Medal of Honor for heroism as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, Mr. Stockdale has made a rapid transformation into a political candidate.

He first agreed to be named an "interim" vice presidential candidate as a favor to his friend Mr. Perot, whom Mr. Stockdale met after the Texas billionaire worked to publicize the mistreatment of prisoners of war in Vietnam. Mr. Perot needed a running mate to satisfy state requirements to get his name on ballots. Then Mr. Perot dropped out of the race, returned and never named another vice president to stand in.

"I didn't even know I was going to be running until Oct. 1," Mr. Stockdale said. He had about a week to prepare for his Oct. 13 debate with Vice President Dan Quayle and Sen. Al Gore.

"I'm getting it fast," he said, explaining that he is studying the issues. "I haven't spent my life in politics, but I've spent my life doing things that have applicability and were perhaps more important."

He said Mr. Perot has given him total autonomy in running his vice presidential campaign and that the presidential candidate treats him with so much deference "it's almost embarrassing."

He imagined that being vice president might be like being the No. 2 man in the Navy, the executive officer, "who's kind of the bad news guy who goes around, finds out what's wrong and keeps the boss informed."

While he refers questions about the economy to Mr. Perot's published plan, Mr. Stockdale said that he would bring to the vice presidency an expertise in military matters and experience in education. Rather than specific policies, he is more at ease discussing the loyalty, duty and character he would bring to the job -- "straight arrow all the way," he said.

He was held captive for nearly eight years, including two years in leg irons. His leg was broken and he still walks with a pronounced limp. But during these experiences, he said, he forged a personal philosophy that he believes applies to all aspects of life, including politics.

While being tortured in Hanoi, he learned not to fear death or pain. Far worse, he said was to feel disloyal, guilty and afraid. "You are the master of your soul," he said.

"We all like to think that virtue is rewarded and evil is punished," he said. "But we all know there is no connection [to that concept] in the universe, as King Lear found out when his children turned against him." He embraces the philosophy of stoicism that he learned in his studies of the life of Epictetus, a Greek slave.

In his brief role as a candidate, he has found that he likes the life. While other candidates, particularly Mr. Perot, berate the news media, Mr. Stockdale said he was touched by the kindness with which reporters and editors treated his nervousness and what he calls "my obvious shortness of preparation" for the debate.

"I saw how human even the most hard-boiled editorial writers are when they saw the event and said it could happen to anybody," he said.

He seems intrigued by the idea of imagining what it would be like if something happened to Mr. Perot and he were to become president.

"I've thought about it," he said. "I think the odds are . . . he's a very healthy guy." But if he were thrust into service, he said he would feel capable of handling the job.

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