Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

October 10, 2012

House of Burgess: Insignificant office, significant debate

By Rob Burgess
Tribune columnist

— After watching last week’s presidential debate, even the most hardcore political junkies can be excused for thinking: “Is this what it has come to?”

Democrat Barack Obama looked completely disinterested, constantly looking down as if he was texting under his podium. Meanwhile, Republican Mitt Romney had a frightening sparkle in his eyes as he told moderator and executive editor of PBS NewsHour, Jim Lehrer, he intended to fire both him and Big Bird were he to be elected. But if you can only stand one more debate before casting your ballot, let it be Thursday’s vice presidential debate in Danville, Ky. between Republican Paul Ryan and Democrat Joe Biden.

But why is it important to pay attention to a debate between two men seeking a position John Adams, the country’s first vice president, described as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived”? It’s because the unbridled id of each party will be on full display for one night. If history serves as any guide, the vice presidential debates are a chance for the country to hear what political parties actually think. It’s almost like listening to the respective party’s inner monologue.

Since 1976, the televised vice presidential debate has been a staple, often producing some of the most memorable quotations. Like in 1976 when Republican Bob Dole tried to pin all the American war deaths in Vietnam, World War II, World War I and the Korean War on the Democratic Party.

“I figured up the other day, if we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it’d be about 1.6 million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit,” he said.

Democrats would have their revenge in 1988 when Sen. Lloyd Bentsen verbally body slammed Sen. Dan Quayle.

“I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency,” Quayle said.

“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine,” Bentsen shot back. “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

In 1992, Ross Perot’s running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, crashed the vice presidential debate.

“Who am I? Why am I here?”

Those were Stockdale’s opening lines, which defined him in the minds of the public as completely confused. During the debate he frequently couldn’t hear the questions and fumbled his answers. Stockdale tripped over himself from the beginning and never fully recovered.

And in 2008, Biden faced Republican Sarah Palin. Evidently whoever coached Palin must have told her the word “Joe” polled well with voters.

“Can I call you ‘Joe’?” Palin asked Biden as they shook hands.

Palin proceeded to make references to “Joe the Plumber,” “Joe six-pack” and “average Joes” multiple times. It’s obvious who Republicans were trying to appeal to.

And this time should be no less exciting. Even moderator in Thursday’s debate, Martha Raddatz, has been known for keeping things gangsta. In 2007 she was attending a press conference held by White House Press Secretary Tony Snow when Raddatz’s cell phone loudly went off to the tune of “Ridin’” by Chamillionaire and Krazie Bone. Raddatz later claimed it was her 15-year-old son Jake’s choice.

“He grabbed it and in no time I had a new, very loud ring tone,” Raddatz wrote on her blog. “’Ridin’ Dirty’ — that’s all I could catch from the lyrics — and I wasn’t really listening very carefully anyway. And quite honestly, I liked it!”

So tune in tomorrow if no other reason than this may be your only chance to see Ryan and Biden reach any semblance of relevancy. As an aide to vice president Hubert Humphrey once said:

“Once the election is over, the vice president’s usefulness is over.”

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577 or via email at rob.burgess@kokomotribune.com.