Surprising Gentlemen

Peter W. Schramm

October 1, 2000

For those who thought that the first debate between Al Gore and George Bush was entirely predictable, unsurprising, and even boring, the debate between Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney was a breath of fresh, clean air. In the debate between the presidential candidates there was no hint of eloquence, no sprinkling of wit. The presidential debate was like a press conference in which words that had been used a thousand times in stump speeches were merely rearranged to look like responses to questions.

During the vice-presidential debate we did not find ourselves dozing off halfway through, and our vague skepticism about the quality of our political life left us, at least temporarily.

We saw two men interviewing for the position of vice-president. It is a good reflection of their talents and dispositions that half way through the conversation the listener thought that maybe, just maybe, the two gentlemen were applying for the wrong job.

Each in his own way did much better than their putative superiors. Since being chosen to be Gore’s running mate, Senator Lieberman has had a good effect on the ticket. Having this once moderate Democrat, this hearty critic of Clinton’s vices on the ticket allowed Gore to distance himself from a dishonored and impeached president. This distance was the necessary condition for Gore to begin the real campaign. It worked.

Secretary Cheney was said to add some gravitas and international experience to Bush, who it was suspected, was lacking in both. Until now it has not been clear that Cheney on the ticket would counterbalance Gore’s choice of Lieberman. The media reported him bored and boring as a campaigner, an unenthusiastic and unhelpful subaltern of Bush, whose campaign was flailing.

Although on Thursday night it became clear that Lieberman did not hurt Gore’s chances of being elected, the night proved to be Cheney’s for he may have broken new ground in American politics. He may have proven that a candidate for vice-president—the right one under the right circumstances—could actually help the presidential candidate pull in some votes that he may otherwise not get and therefore actually help get him elected.

Cheney did this by being thoughtful, clear and conversational. His answers were actual responses to questions, responses that were perfectly lucid, often deeply thoughtful, and sometimes even witty enough to if not be the cause of wit in other men, at least knock his opponent off balance.

Cheney’s manner of speaking and thinking had the effect of pulling in the listener, of inviting the listener to hear what he had to say. The listener got the impression that the invitation was worthwhile, that Cheney was saying something worth hearing. This is a rare quality in a politician and once you see it and hear it you know it is good. You remember those politicians from ancient days who actually thought that one of the jobs of a politician was to refine and enlarge the public view. Although both men did that, it is clear that Cheney is the statesman and Lieberman merely the servant of the public.

Lieberman, although better and more refined than Gore, shares an attribute of Gore’s: He gives the impression when he is talking that he is chasing you; that his words are forcing themselves on you the way the words of a used car salesman force themselves on you. At his worst, he sounds like he is hawking a product that you don’t really understand or need (like his targeted tax cuts), and that you will if he just repeats it to you often enough.

Although I think it is arguably the case that Cheney won the debate, it is beyond peradventure that this conversation between two gracious, polite and classy gents will have had a good effect on American politics. It reminds citizens of what kind of friendly discourse political opponents may have, discourse in which they not only do good for their own cause, but also do much good for the well being of the Republic. For the well being of this Republic—more than any heretofore—depends on the ability of citizens to deliberate over the great issues of the day. Cheney and Lieberman not only reminded us of that need, more importantly, they reminded us that we still have the capacity.

Peter W. Schramm is Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.