My least prescient political prediction came 13 years ago, when I told all my friends that James Stockdale would win the first vice-presidential debate of 1992. Besides his admirable personal story—in addition to surviving torture in Vietnam, he had helped expose the truth about the Gulf of Tonkin incident—Stockdale was a strong and thoughtful writer; I had seen some of his essays in Chronicles, and had no doubt that he'd make mincemeat of those lightweights Al Gore and Dan Quayle.
As far as I'm concerned, he did win that debate—not with powerful arguments, not by reciting his biography, but by being the one guy on the stage who seemed to be a real human being. The fact that he seemed so out of place should have been more embarrassing for his opponents than for him. But the polls said he lost badly. Dennis Miller put it pretty well, back when Dennis Miller put things pretty well:
The reason he had to turn his hearing aid on at that debate is because those fucking animals knocked his eardrums out when he wouldn't spill his guts. He teaches philosophy at Stanford University, he's a brilliant, sensitive, courageous man. And yet he committed the one unpardonable sin in our culture: he was bad on television. Somewhere out there Paddy Chayefsky must be laughing his ass off.
Stockdale died last week at the age of 81, a fact I somehow missed until the weekend. Chronicles editor Thomas Fleming has written a fine tribute to the admiral. Here's part of it:
Jim faced a number of moral crises. As a POW his captors tortured him so hard they broke his will, temporarily. Agreeing to denounce the United States in front of the TV cameras, he said he needed to get cleaned up. Once in the bathroom, he took the opportunity to mutilate his face to the point that he was useless for their propaganda. Perhaps an even graver crisis, one he thought about often over the years, was his experience at the Gulf of Tonkin. Although the Johnson administration used the so-called "incident" to justify his war with North Vietnam, Jim, in charge of his squadron, knew that nothing had happened. As he said later, he flew so low that there was salt spray on his windshield and yet he saw nothing. It seemed an outrage that brave men should have to die in a war being waged by cowardly bureaucrats like Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and he spent his seven years of captivity worrying that the North Vietnamese, with the help of their antiwar friends in the United States, would put two and two together and force him to tell the truth. But Communists are politicians, too, and they wanted only lies.
Stockdale was a truth-teller, a man of tremendous bravery, and a patriot in the best sense of the word. He also understood that no sane man should keep his hearing aid on when there's a risk that Al Gore or Dan Quayle might start talking. Requiescat in pace.