• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Review: Vice Presidential Debate

October 2020

Last night, during a Vice Presidential debate to which millions of American eyes were fixed, by which thousands of newspaper columns are this morning being filled, a strange thing occurred: incivility yielded to courtesy, boorishness to refinement, irascibility to restraint, shouting to decorum, and chaos to calm.

In all, it was an encouraging improvement over last week’s Presidential debate, a contentious debacle and an ugly affair to which this—a seemingly polished sequel with fresher actors, better questions, and a less immoderate moderator—was doubtless superior. But not everything abandoned in the old was unwelcome in the new. One component, in particular, conserved itself so effectively as not to succumb to the hostility of a long, October week. That which persisted, and likely always will, was each candidates’ stubborn refusal directly to answer questions put to her or him. This, we can attribute to their shared grasp of the language of prevarication, that type of elusive and obscure speech in which every politician is fluent, through which every citizen can see.

We criticize politicians not for their occasional employment of this adopted tongue, by which, sadly, their native voices tend to be overpowered and drowned out, but for their heavy reliance on and constant use of its verbiage, as though there existed no other words to which they might give voice. The simplicity of truth, and the charm of earnest expression, it turns out, create for us a language not only intelligible to the clever, but agreeable to all. To prevaricate is to insult the voter and to degrade oneself, while always concealing that which we deserve to hear—the honesty of conviction and the beauty of truth.

Both candidates, Kamala Harris, the challenger, and Mike Pence, the incumbent, can be justly accused of having prevaricated far too much, if my opinion is to be entertained. And, if you’ve not yet aborted your reading of this piece, your indulgence of exactly that must be assumed. But he who spoke with more consistent candor, with a greater allegiance to veracity, with more studied and various points, with more facility of reason, and with a disarming sincerity of tone, was the current Vice President, Mike Pence. In a word, he prevaricated much less than the formidable combatant (a description given to us by the media of which, I dare say, she’s yet to have provided much proof) by whom he was opposed.

As it happens, for those reasons and others, he might convincingly be declared the evening’s final “victor”—a title of which, as most people unclouded by their biases would agree, he’s justly deserving. To arrive at an alternate conclusion, out of which Harris emerges the night’s sole winner, would be to display either errant judgment, incorrigible prejudice, or shameless bad faith. In short, it would be to indulge in a fiction. It would be to adopt a narrative for which, so near an election, we really haven’t any time.

That’s not to say, of course, that Pence was wholly innocent of prevarication: to be in such a state, would be akin to claiming that man, after the temptation of Eve and the fall of her mate, might conceivably exist without the inherited blemish of sin. No man, neither living nor dead, could ever make the claim to be so immaculately clean. It’s ridiculous, then, to imagine Pence departing the stage as unsullied as the prelapsarian. One can’t picture him without those dirty stains by which his profession is distinguished, and his public record marked.

Yet on every topic, including that of the pandemic, with which the debate opened, by which he was putatively “bulldozed” (as an early-morning headline from The Washington Post claimed), Pence succeeded in winning point after point. There was no question from which he completely retreated, and he very seldom yielded ground. He withheld his use of honeyed political double-talk by which sound-bites are sweetened, but no one listening is informed.

And while he, like Harris, couldn’t escape every prevarication and all opportunity to conceal, his answers were more cogent, mature, and forthcoming. Be it on our fractured relations with China, our novel approach toward the Middle East, our economic state of affairs, our combustible issue of climate change, or our impending addition to the Supreme Court, Pence provided intelligent explanations for which his careful preparation and agile wit must be commended.

Harris, one must suppose, was equally well-prepared for the debate, but the evidence for that assumption isn’t supported by the grade of her performance. Overall, she seemed only distantly acquainted with the topics with which she was confronted, to which she very seldom offered an enlightening point of view. Her wit, if so it be called, appeared to be coerced and unnatural, ponderous and slow. It lacked the dexterity of movement and the liveliness of genius with which we’ve come to associate other famous political names. It hadn’t the spirited ferocity nor the prosecutorial strength of which she’s said, unlike all other public speakers, to be in the utmost possession. She lacked that incontrovertible honesty and inimitable poise with which she, as the purported “foil to Trump”, ought to be flush.

She looked neither light on her feet, nor gracious in her affect. She failed to endear herself to the anxious curiosity of a discerning public, whom she insulted, time and again, by avoiding the questions it deemed fit to ask. Fully apprised of the fact that she was on “split-screen”, and, thus, continually visible to the detection of all, she couldn’t resist turning her face in such a way as to reflect the unappealing shouts of her soul. Such contortions served as a conduit through which, in the absence of words, her condescension might best be communicated, and that message was never lost on the audience upon whom, repeatedly, it landed with a crash. As she provided no substance when encouraged to talk, these disdainful grins and scornful shakings of the head spoke with much greater clarity than did she.

She avoided completely the question, posed by the incumbent, on whether or not she’d advocate the packing of the Supreme Court. This question, despite her evasion, will persist in the weeks to come. She provided a facile lesson on her approach toward foreign relations, simplifying them as a matter of enemies and friends. She then included in that dulcet category of “friends” those who were signatories to the Iran Nuclear Deal, among whom, aside from the Europeans, we count such nefarious actors as China, Russia, and Iran. No mention of Israel, the sole democracy in that region, was made, and no clear plan for its future treatment was laid bare.

That said, we can find contentment in her efforts, much more in those of Pence, for the very fact that they were better than those of their running-mates. Despite their propensity to prevarication, and their incomplete willingness to speak with candor, Pence and Harris provided us with a debate to which Donald Trump and Joe Biden could only aspire.

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