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Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

While driving home yesterday I caught the tail end of a story on NPR about the need for real debates in American politics. The piece discussed an area of agreement between two individuals from opposite ends of the political spectrum:

  • Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation
  • Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, Board of Directors, National Rifle Association and the American Conservative Union.

Katrina vanden Heuvel:

These are times when unfiltered, unfettered public debate — rigorous, substantive, candid and civil — are rare and hard to find….Last week we witnessed a rare event — President Obama met with GOP House members, and their debate was as riveting as the best reality show. It made us all remember that political exchange can be compelling, even entertaining!


Grover Norquist:

One reason politics in the United States is so uninspiring and uninteresting is that it consists of long speeches by party leaders. Speeches allow one to go on and on at length, unchallenged, possibly inventing facts and certainly presenting only one side of the argument. In a debate, both sides make their case in real time. Debates are better than speeches; debates are competition. Speeches are monopolies….Debates, like the question time the British have in Parliament, promote politicians like Winston Churchill. Speeches get you politicians like George W. Bush and Barack Obama — and there are no teleprompters in the debates. Coaches and speechwriters…do very little to prop up the incompetent in a debate.

Norquist went on to discuss a long ago debate that took place in May of 1967, one that I had never heard or read about before.  This debate was ostensibly between Robert F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. I say “ostensibly” because in reality the debate was between these two men and a group of radical students.  Here is how the debate’s moderator described the session:

I’m Charles Collingwood and this is TOWN MEETING OF THE WORLD, the latest in an occasional series of trans-Atlantic confrontations that’s been going on ever since communication satellites made them possible. With me here in the studio of the BBC in London are a group of young people, university students from – one from the United States, but the rest of them from Europe, Africa and Asia. They are all attending universities in Great Britain. They have ideas, all of them, sometimes provocative ones, about the United States, its role and its image. For the next hour, via the Atlantic communications satellite, they will be participating in a global dialogue with Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Democrat of New York, and Governor Ronald Reagan, Republican of California.

And so here is how Norquist described this debate and its implications for today:

In the 1960s, Robert Kennedy and Ronald Reagan debated the Vietnam War. No one who saw that debate then, or on tape since, would have been surprised in later decades by Reagan’s political abilities. He wasn’t just a speech reader; he was an original thinker and a debater.

I was only two years old when Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. The Reagan years, however, were formative ones for me. They encompassed my time in both high school and college.  If Kennedy had a reputation as a great orator, Reagan was often presented as an amiable dunce, a puppet in front of the cameras, the epitome of style over substance.  I could go on.  Though I never really believed these characterizations, this wasn’t a popular position on a college campus in the 1980s.  So, intrigued by the Norquist’s description of this debate, off to Google I went to find the details. I found a 10 minute video clip, which is shown below, and a transcript of the entire debate.

I also found a May 2007 NationalReview.com piece by Paul Kengor entitled “The Great Forgotten Debate.”  Kengor makes the argument that “There was total agreement, including among media sources who revered Bobby Kennedy, from the San Francisco Chronicle to Newsweek, that Reagan overwhelmingly won the debate.”

I’ll take a different point of view.  I was truly impressed be each of these great men. Coming from different perspectives, they had command of the facts and were able to speak intelligently without the aid of anything except what was between their ears. The real winners were the more than 15 million Americans that had the opportunity to see this debate live on CBS TV.

In America today we have a non-stop, 24 hour new cycle that delivers us less real information and insight than ever before. We have too many empty-suit politicians that thrive based on their ability to deliver sound bites that play well to their base. And so this is why Norquist and vanden Heuvel joined last week with “a diverse group of bloggers, commentators, techies and politicos, calling for more question sessions with the president and the opposition party.”  As vanden Heuvel put it,

These are times when unfiltered, unfettered public debate — rigorous, substantive, candid and civil — are rare and hard to find. I believe that “Demand Question Time” will help us to nurture a smart and vibrant democracy.

Today I signed the petition at www.DemandQuestionTime.com.  If you think this is a good idea, perhaps you’ll consider doing the same.

OK, but what does any of this have to do with Joe DiMaggio? Well, as I watched these debates, I was left with a nostalgia for a time of real leaders, of men like Reagan and RFK.  And this emotion brought the DiMaggio reference from Paul Simon’s song “Mrs. Robinson” rushing into my consciousness.  I always thought of that line as a yearning for an earlier time, one when we had real, genuine heroes.  Perhaps it is too much to wish for heroes.  But is it too much to yearn for leaders more real and more genuine than we have today?

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