Cartoonist Wiley Miller’s “Non Se-quitur” offering in the Thursday morning newspaper was nothing if not timely.
It showed two grizzled prisoners, both in chains, languishing in a dark, dank dungeon. One, seated on the floor, is simply chained to a wall. The other is chained high to the adjacent wall, spread-eagled and hanging by his heels.
“They gave me a choice,” Mr. Upside-Down Guy explains to his cell-mate. “It was either this, or watch political debates.”
Anyone who sat through the three presidential and vice-presidential debates — each debate too long by half — likely could understand why the wretch chose to hang from the wall. Not that that will stop many of us from watching Wednesday night’s final debate between presidential wannabes John McCain and Barack Obama, even if the blood rushing to our brain should cause our head to explode before the first question by moderator Bob Schieffer is evaded by either candidate.
As a matter of fact, watching the debate while hanging upside down like a bat in a cave might be just the ticket to understanding things. It surely couldn’t be any less enlightening a position than watching from normal couch-potato mode on the sofa, adult beverage at the ready for when things turn squirrelly.
Like when the candidates boast of grand schemes to cut taxes, even as they promise to spend us into the poorhouse. Or when — immediately after vowing that their friendship is stronger than the ties that bound Romeo and Juliet — they distort each other’s record with impunity. Plus the head games, the diversionary tactics, the sometimes blatant assaults on truth. Stuff like that.
Not that this is inconsistent with the history of debate in American politics. In their seven debates in 1858, with slavery as the main topic under consideration, incumbent Democratic Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Abraham Lincoln, the Republican who unsuccessfully sought to replace Douglas, made some pretty strong, though colorful, allegations against each other.
Modern-day political debates are said to trace their roots to Lincoln-Douglas — the gold standard of American debating — although today’s formats differ greatly from the 1858 model, which is a big break for the electorate.
Talk about operating under a format that would make you want to hang from the rafters by your ankles and twist slowly in the wind. According to Wikipedia, under the rules of debate in vogue at the time, the first guy got 60 minutes to attempt to put the audience to sleep. If that didn’t do the trick, his opponent followed with 90 minutes of airtime, uninterrupted except for the occasional catcall from the assembled mob. Then the first guy got another 30 minutes of what was called “rejoinder” time.
That’s three hours of non-stop oratory or nearly as long as your basic Fidel Castro harangue on the joys of social and ideological revolution. And the customers reportedly kept coming back for more. In Illinois, in 1858, there apparently was not a whole lot to do in one’s leisure time.
Newspaper coverage of the Lincoln-Douglas debates was extensive. The major newspapers in Chicago sent stenographers to transcribe the speeches verbatim, and newspapers across the country ran the full texts, albeit with partisan editing.
Newspapers aligned with Democrats corrected errors made by the stenographers and fixed grammatical glitches made by Douglas, but ran the Lincoln part of the text in its rough form. Republican-leaning newspapers returned the favor, dressing up Lincoln’s presentation while leaving the Douglas portion to fend for itself, wayward grammar and all.
The old boys generally were masters at turning a phrase to deftly skewer their opponent. Lincoln’s take on a Douglas argument that states were not bound by a particular Supreme Court decision in respect to slave ownership was a case in point. He characterized the proposition as a do-nothing sovereignty “as thin as the homeopathic soup made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that has starved to death.”
That, my friends, is thin. But probably no more so than the possibility that such eloquence will define Wednesday night’s final presidential debate.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.