As a young girl hoping to embark on a career in politics, I watched the first 1992 Vice Presidential debate with great interest. Al Gore (D) and Dan Quayle (R) were joined by Admiral James Stockdale, the candidate of Ross Perot's Reform Party. A viable third-party ticket was uncommon in national elections. It might hopefully revitalize an otherwise fading process.
Of course it would—Stockdale (who died this week) was a great American war hero, a Medal of Honor winner and one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the U.S. Navy, a prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven and a half years.
Theoretically, this was an ideal leadership team. But more than anything, I just wanted to hear what Admiral Stockdale had to say.
Admiral James Bond Stockdale was a name I'd first heard much earlier, from my father, a career Navy man. Stockdale was the keynote speaker at my father's graduation from Officer Candidate School—and one of the few people about whom my father speaks with reverence.
I thought Stockdale's heroism would somehow set him apart from the pack.
The debate certainly set him apart but sadly not in the most flattering manner. Here is the text of the debate that night, where Stockdale uttered his much-derided opening remarks: "Who am I? Why am I here?"
He was clearly addressing the large portion of the viewing audience who likely had not heard of him.
Side note: The idea that there is an American alive unaware of Stockdale and his valor makes me sick.
But I'm not at all surprised. A few years later, when I was actually in politics, I had a conversation with a woman in her late 30s who worked for-then California Governor, Pete Wilson.
We were tossing around names as possible speakers for an upcoming Republican fundraiser. I said "How about Admiral Stockdale?"
And it happened: The abrupt pause; the rapid eye-blinking that reveals a certain level of confusion.
She had no idea who I was talking about.
I remembered rule #2 of my Political Minion Survival Handbook…appearing more knowledgeable than senior staff could land me a two-year stint behind the constituent mail desk at the Caucus.
I suggested a different, well-known speaker for the event and quickly fled the scene.
Still, every cloud has a silver lining…
After the 1992 debate, while I watched in horror, as this champion of freedom was eviscerated by media dogs, I gained what I consider invaluable political insight:
Americans don't want leadership, they want entertainment.
Americans don't want war heroes who promote national unity through wise, experienced discourse to inhabit the White House. They want men who discuss their underwear preferences and pot-smoking predicaments on MTV.
Roughly 20 million people voted for Perot/Stockdale. More than twice as many voted for Clinton/Gore. The proof is in the pudding.
Nevertheless, the Perot movement was a definite footnote in history. It's the sort of thing that historians may one day cite as evidence that our national two-party duopoly was coming under fatal strain—especially if veteran Reagan operative Lyn Nofziger is right in his little-noticed but shocking suggestion that "open borders and illegal immigration" could provoke a successful Third Party movement as early as 2008. (Nofziger's blog doesn't have permalinks, scroll down to his May 19, 2005 entry).
Indeed, the Perot movement was one of those moments when it appeared that immigration might break into politics. In a Wall Street Journal article on the furor following Peter Brimelow's 1992 National Review "Time To Rethink Immigration?" cover story, Tim Ferguson actually predicted (presumably advisedly) that Perot would run on the immigration issue.
In the event, Perot confined himself to denouncing NAFTA. But Peter tells me that Reform Party groups provided him with some of his most successful venues when he was promoting Alien Nation in 1995.
Perot chose not to seize his great chance. And look what happened to him.
Rest in peace, Admiral Stockdale. My children at least will know your name.
Bryanna Bevens [email her] is a political consultant and former chief of staff for a member of the California State Assembly.