At Large: That wasn’t a debate, this was a debate

Print deadlines made it impossible to use this space to comment on last night’s presidential debate. Not that I would have done so. That ground is thoroughly trampled by the column-writing herd, and here we’re after something fresh and, yes, peculiar. In that way, here’s a take on debates past and a suggestion that, as debates go, nobody does it better than Vineyarders.

Remember how, in 2000, Gore won because he wasn’t nasty. Bush won because he held his own. Gore was masterful on the issues. Bush was good at drawing a distinction between his and Gore’s positions on taxes, Social Security, and Medicare.

For Islanders familiar with debates as brawls, those were hardly debates at all.

The Onion web site got the Bush performance just right. The headline is “Bush Vows to Do ‘That Thing Gore Just Said, Only Better.’”

That’s daytime television.

I know a debate when I hear it, like the debate we enjoyed in the mid-1970s, when Sen. Edward Kennedy’s Islands Trust Bill or former Massachusetts Gov. Frank Sargent’s Martha’s Vineyard Commission legislation were the topics. The fight was against the Kennedy bill and for the Sargent bill, but really the anti-Kennedy bill folks appropriated the state bill, which they loathed, as a bulwark against the Kennedy bill, which they loathed more. Just because Island debate practice is fundamentally wicked and unsparing doesn’t mean the contestants don’t recognized a tactical advantage when it presents itself.

At a town meeting, during the height of the battle, Island officials would face off on the plainest forensic terms.

“You never did a lick of work in your life,” one Kennedy bill critic might say.

“Oh, dry up, you horse’s ass,” his opposite number would reply.

I remember one especially excitable former Edgartown selectman, barely restrained by his friends from rushing the pulpit of the Federated Church on the occasion of one early meeting on the trust bill, who scattered his shot far and wide. So incensed was he at the notion that Congress might decide what Vineyard land could be built on and what could not, this duly elected representative of the people warned that “if the trust bill passed, the president, the Senate, the House, the whole damned country, and especially Ted Kennedy, will go straight to hell.” It was a jeremiad equal to the likes of Cotton Mather

Had the president and Mitt Romney participated in the trust bill-state bill debate, someone would almost certainly have been knocked off-message. Someone would have said something unrehearsed. Some real emotion, some spontaneous thought might have pierced the stupefyingly narcotic fog in which the current big-ticket aspirants contend.

In those gloriously spirited, uniquely Vineyard moments, whether the contestants were wincing as they spoke was not an issue. There were no hard to pierce policy mists. It wasn’t about hints hidden in body language. Rather, it approximated the moves of an unlimited cage-fighting contest.

The late William F. Buckley Jr., a debater of no mean reputation, offers this advice to public speakers, particularly those who find the mood of the audience to be “doggedly skeptical.”

” …waste no time in giving out your conclusion unless you have extraordinary diplomatic balance wheels. I have seen Hubert Humphrey, and indeed Bill Clinton, draw blood from a stone in public speeches, attacking the skeptics in the manner of Jimmy Durante, who would, if necessary to entertain his audience, take an axe to the piano. Such as these have very special skills.”

No Durante-like mastery was in evidence during the Kennedy bill debate. Everything short of axes was in bounds. Few issues were clarified. None of the questions that might profitably have been examined were examined. No refinements emerged that might have enhanced and made more flexible the prescriptions set out in the two proposals. And ultimately it was the raw Island-wide referendum tallies that killed the one and inscribed the other in the law.