Two of my favorite sitcoms were on TV last Thursday night at 9. NBC had the eighth season premiere of The Office, and Fox News aired the third installment of a new show called The Republican Presidential Debates. Both were great for laughs and quite a few groans, but, unfortunately, the debate was the more fictionalized of the two shows.
With the crazy Republican presidential debate season heating up, it’s hard not to be flabbergasted. The right-wing audiences have been cheering mass executions and death by lack of insurance while booing a soldier on the front lines because of bigotry against his sexual identity. The candidates have been lying at a phenomenal rate, and one after another has crashed and burned over simple questions that Americans have a right to expect a presidential candidate to ace.
These debates have me reminiscing for what seems to be a simpler time in American politics. I found myself recently thinking back to a sunny day in early 1992. (Insert “he’s-so-old” joke here.) I was walking down the street in my hometown when a nice young man held out a pen and asked me if I would sign a petition to get someone named H. Ross Perot on the presidential ballot.
Back then, I was neither news-hound nor ostrich with my head in the sand when it came to national politics, but I had to confess to the nice young man that I had no idea who H. Ross Perot was. I remember pronouncing his name like the Agatha Christie detective, Hercule Poirot. It briefly crossed my mind that the “H” might stand for Hercule.
So the nice young man started to tell me about H. Ross Perot. After thirty seconds or so, I held up my hand to stop him.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Are you telling me that what America needs right now is another rich old white guy to screw things up?”
I have nothing against rich old white guys in general. In fact, it would be nice to be a rich old white guy someday. I’m already more than halfway there–I’m white and a guy. The rich part is isn’t terribly likely, but I’ll keep trying. The old part doesn’t sound all that great, but it’s much better than the alternative of dying young (or, in my case, middle-aged). It’s just that we’ve had so many of these rich old white guys who have made a mess of our country throughout history. I remember wondering what would be wrong with giving the non-rich, non-old, non-white, non-guys a chance to make their mark–or their mistakes, whichever comes to pass?
The nice young man stuck his pen out farther and got a bit defensive, rambling on about Perot the outsider, Perot the innovator, Perot the alternative to business as usual. I didn’t want to be rude, but the most politeness I could manage was a definitive, “No, thank you,” as I walked away.
Not too many months later, I rose before dawn and walked up the street to a junior high school where I voted for Bill Clinton. That evening, I watched on television as Perot danced with his wife to strains of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” smiling at the cameras with a look of a man actually surprised that he had lost.
“Crazy”–was he trying to tell us something? Maybe he was previewing the 2012 Republican field.
Skip forward to 1997. I was teaching a public speaking class, working with the students on a unit about persuasive speaking, showing them a videotape of one of the 1992 George Bush, Bill Clinton, Ross Perot presidential debates.
I had tried recording the 1996 debates between Clinton and Bob Dole to use in class, but it just wasn’t fair. In the first debate, Clinton gave a nice, polished opening statement. But then it was Bob Dole’s turn–and he started talking like a vampire. Sure, he was a dedicated public servant for decades, but by 1996, he looked and spoke like a vampire. He could have shouted at the audience, “Vote for Bob Dole or Bob Dole will hunt you down and bite your neck and drink your blood!” and it would have amounted to about the same thing. I turned off the VCR and saved the tape for Seinfeld re-runs.
Instead, I had all the 1992 debate videos to use as a teaching prop, including the surreal Dan Quayle, Al Gore, Admiral Stockdale vice presidential debate. To this day I can’t remember Stockdale’s first name. I’ve decided it must be “Admiral.” I used to think it would be cool to have a child and name him or her “Governor,” or “Senator.” No maitre d’ will be able to reject a caller who says, “This is Senator Sheirer. I’d like to reserve a table for tonight.”
My favorite of the 1992 debates was the one with the town-hall format, so I showed the class all three candidates’ closing statements. As far as public speaking goes, Bush was adequate, and Clinton was wonderful–pretty much predictable.
Perot, on the other hand, looked like he was running for president of the planet Hickatronia. The guy mumbled and cackled and stared cock-eyed at the camera while he called minorities “little pieces of clay,” bragged about having arguments “all day, every day” at his company, confessed while trying to make a connection with everyday working stiffs that he had paid “over a billion dollars in taxes,” and topped it all off by hollering “Goodnight everybody!” to the audience as if he were concluding an episode of Hee-Haw, forgetting that Clinton hadn’t yet had his turn to speak.
The students roundly and rightly criticized Perot’s speaking abilities. Most of them were too young to have voted in 1992, and several were dumbfounded that anyone could have voted for this joker. It was my sad duty to remind them that about twenty percent of the vote went to Perot. I looked around the room and saw a couple of the older students looking sheepish, but not wanting to admit aloud that they were part of that twenty percent.
Let’s turn the time machine ahead again, this time to the year 2000–the beginning of the “Lost Decade.” At least Perot was gone (thank you god), but things were still “crazy” even without him. George Bush the younger and Al Gore both made themselves look pretty much like boring numbskulls in their debates. Thousands of Florida voters couldn’t read a ballot and voted for the wrong candidate, if they voted at all. Even worse, Florida election officials couldn’t design a ballot that people could make sense of when they pulled the curtain behind them in the voting booth. And worst of all, why did such a technologically advanced nation use punch cards for its most important election? What does it say about a country where lottery ticket sales are usually computerized but voting wasn’t at the turn of the millennium? Perhaps in future elections, we should just give the voters a hammer and chisel and ask them to carve their votes into stone tablets.
A few weeks after the 2000 election, during our electoral “time of crisis” (words that would come back to haunt a stunned nation less than a year later), I tried to explain that delightful institution called the Electoral College to Jadish, the Pakistani man who played racquetball at my gym. He was confused because he thought that Gore should have won because he got more votes than Bush–a completely understandable bit of confusion.
“The Electoral College,” I told Jadish, “was created long ago when our country was founded. Most people back then didn’t have the education to understand the issues, so people voted for local folks who knew more about what was going on. Then these more educated people, the ‘electors,’ actually cast the real votes for president later. But the system has lost its usefulness now because the average citizen is a lot more educated and informed about the issues than they were back then.”
About two-thirds of the way into my “explanation,” the irony hit me hard. Educated and informed? Not so much, it seemed. But I kept trying to put a positive spin on the whole thing. After about thirty seconds, Jadish had a look on his face that he might give to a four-year-old child who has just happily said aloud at a dinner party, “I have a pee-pee and my sister has a wee-wee.”
Bush eventually was installed into the White House by the Supreme Court, and the disaster began. We’re still feeling the effects of his horrible presidency and probably will for some time, thanks to his imitators among the Republicans in congress who keep getting elected despite their disregard for about ninety-eight percent of the American population. The blessing of (and trouble with) democracy is that everyone gets to participate.
A few days after my chat with Jadish, one of my young students asked me if the credits for the classes he was taking at our college would transfer to the Electoral College. I’m not making this up. He was thinking about exploring a career in politics, and the Electoral College seemed like it might be a good place to go.
He was especially glad that it was in Florida, where he wouldn’t be far from Daytona for spring break.
I now show my public speaking classes YouTube clips from the Obama/McCain debates of 2008. Obama, of course, reminds me of Bill Clinton: clear, effective, personable, rational. McCain brings to mind Bob Dole: just as blood-thirsty, but without the Dracula died black hair.
The students analyze their public speaking skills and ask, “I can see why Obama won–but why does everyone seem to hate him now?” I reply, “Well, mostly just loud people on TV hate him.”
As I watch these ridiculous Republican presidential debates, every candidate reminds me of the craziness of H. Ross Perot. But even Perot’s worst policy proposals pale in comparison with the destruction any of these candidates would bring to the country if we were unfortunate enough to see one of them elected. I can’t help wondering what sort of voter would be confused enough to support this cast of sitcom characters, especially compared with President Obama. But a lot of people voted for Perot in 1992 and 1996–so I guess some folks will vote for anybody.
Post Script: I remember now. His name was James. But to me, he’ll always be “Admiral.”