May 27, 2018
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Cue cards for GOP debaters

Kent Ward
By Kent Ward

When the University of Maine men’s basketball team played the University of New Hampshire at Alfond Arena some years ago, a New Hampshire coach positioned at the far end of his team’s bench worked a series of large cards bearing coded messages in ultra-bold foot-high type.

By this method he called the play for the UNH players as they worked the ball up the floor. He’d flash “X-35,” say, or “22 Blue,” and I’m sitting there taking this all in and thinking something is wrong with this picture.

If the UNH guys could read the instructions, couldn’t everyone in the joint — including, presumably, the Maine players and coaches — read them as well? And should there be some nimble dean’s list code-busting expert on the Maine bench who might quickly figure out that “22 Blue” meant thus and such, couldn’t the opposition be expected to take evasive action to thwart the play the second and third time around?

Small wonder that UNH at the time was sporting a less-than-impressive record under the flip-card method of communication.

As the game wore on, however, it became obvious that it would take more than the flashing of cryptic cue-cards from the bench to jump-start the anemic UNH offense, and the maneuver was abandoned. It may not have worked all that well in basketball, but I have since wondered how it might fare in some other endeavor.

Politics in general, perhaps. And specifically in the never-ending series of political debates among the four remaining Republican presidential wannabes.

Cue cards might prevent a Newt Gingrich performance from falling flat before some future audience, as happened in a debate last week preceding voting in Florida. Operating from offstage, cue card guy could flash the always popular “Attack News Media” or “Berate Moderator” card, and Gingrich — a master at pointing out flaws in lesser mortals — might soon have the audience hooting and clamoring for blood, quickly putting him back in the game.

Granted, the placards might not project the mystique of the University of New Hampshire basketball team’s “22 Blue.” But if they should happen to work, who could knock the ploy?

A good location for cue card guy to set up shop would be behind the camera in the studio of most any cable network talk show, where show hosts with super-size egos — which is to say the vast majority of the talkative species — seem incapable of letting their panelists get a word in edgewise. “Let Guests Talk” and “Put Sock In It” might easily be the dawg-eared signs getting the most use in this scenario.

Department store cash register checkout people could use the cue card method to thwart savvy shoppers who consistently seem able to sniff out the fastest moving checkout lines. When too many had discovered the quickest escape route, a supervisor lurking nearby could catch the attention of the operator of the offending cash register by holding up a card containing the two most dreaded words in checkout line transactions: “Price check.” Things would come to an immediate and prolonged halt until the matter had been settled. Next time, the savvy crowd might think twice before trying to game the system to make a hasty exit.

The secret of the effective cue card — as with signs in general — is succinctness and clarity. To be sure, one person’s clarity can be another’s ambiguity, as former Parker Pen Co. executive Roger Axtell pointed out in an article in an ancient edition of Travel Weekly, an industry publication I found buried in my files.

Tongue in cheek, Axtell paints the image of a foreigner about to step on an escalator in an American city when he spots a nearby sign: “Dogs Must Be Carried.” Fearful of breaking the law and getting locked up so far from home, the confused man allegedly beseeches bystanders to tell him where he might quickly find a dog.

In making the case for clear writing in correspondence, Axtell claimed he once had written to his company’s plant manager in Brazil, asking for an accounting of the number of local employees, broken down by sex. In his written reply, the manager stated that 10 people were employed in the office, 25 worked in the plant and four were presently in the hospital.

To his knowledge, none of the latter group had been broken down by sex, the man reported.

“Our problem here is alcohol,” he explained.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is

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