An Appreciation of Adm. Stockdale
I was in college in 1992, during the Vice Presidential Debate, and I definitely remember snickering for most of the school year about the performance of Admiral James Stockdale, Ross Perot's running mate. It was probably more Phil Hartman's impression of him that Stockdale himself which amused me, but 13 years later, upon hearing of his death, it occurred to me what a rare figure he struck in American politics.
First of all, the guy was a bona fide hero, and he actually would have brought to the Vice Presidency something incredibly unusual in our times: leadership skills.
A Navy pilot who commanded an aircraft carrier air group during the Vietnam War, Stockdale was shot down in September 1965 while leading an airstrike on North Vietnam.
During 7 1/2 years in captivity at a facility known to POWs as the Hanoi Hilton, Stockdale was tortured, kept in leg irons for two years and spent four years in solitary confinement.
But he managed to convince his captors his willingness to suffer pain, and even death, rather than capitulate, by injuring himself and slitting his own wrists.
"He was subsequently discovered and revived by the North Vietnamese, who, convinced of his indomitable spirit, abated their employment of excessive harassment and torture of all prisoners of war," according to the citation from his 1976 Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. award for bravery.
Stockdale, who became the top-ranking naval officer held in captivity during the Vietnam war, also organized a secret culture of resistance among fellow prisoners, devising rules of conduct and a system of clandestine communications that involved tapping on walls in code.
He was also unconcerned with the culture of silence in the military, willing to speak truth to power about official wrongdoing:
He later faulted former President Lyndon Johnson for not using greater military power to press America's advantage during the war. He also disputed the Johnson administration's official assertion that the first U.S. strikes on North Vietnam were in retaliation for attacks on American warships in the Gulf of Tonkin, according to the Los Angeles Times.
"I literally led the initial strike of a war I knew was under false pretenses," the newspaper quoted him as having said.
Two decades later, after a career in academia, he committed the unpardonable sin in this country (in the words of Dennis Miller before he turned to the dark side): he was bad on TV. There was a really good reason for that, as Stockdale revealed to Jim Lehrer:
JIM LEHRER: What was the process that led up to the debate?
ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Well, first of all, I was asked by Ross Perot on a telephone call in March of 1992 if, since he had committed on the Larry King Show to becoming a candidate for president, to get on all 50 ballots, he said, now, he said, you know, "I just now came across the information, and about half the states have to have, or demand to have the - the candidate's name at the start." Each state runs its own show on that, I'm sure. But anyway, he said, "What I want to ask you is for a favor." He said, "Would you let me put in your name as a stand-in candidate, and then as soon as I can get a real politician to join me, I'll let you know and we'll erase your name." And we got stuck in the mud somewhere.
I mean, we were just sitting back there in Coronado, and we - and pretty soon then he called up in July and said that I'm going to be going on TV in a few minutes and I'm going to say I'm resigning from the candidacy, that I'm going to get out. Well, then, I don't know where all this paperwork was - that's another thing, because the wheels were turning and I thought my name had been removed. But it hadn't, and he hadn't found anybody to run with him, as near as I can tell. And so it was - there was no preparation sponsored.
JIM LEHRER: And suddenly you were told you had to debate Gore and Quayle?
ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: We didn't know. Sybil and I were on the -
JIM LEHRER: Sybil's your wife.
ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Sybil's my wife, and on the first day of October, that's the first time I knew Ross was going to run.
JIM LEHRER: That he was coming back into the race. Yeah.
ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Yeah. And so Sybil said to me, whispered to me on that occasion, said, "Are you going to have to be in that - if they have a V.P. debate" - and it hadn't been really decided yet - "You're not going to have to be in that, are you?" I said, "No, everybody knows I'm not a politician." Then I started saying, "Well, let me think about that." And this was a rather short time span.
The debate popped up 12 days after that. I think that was about the date of the debate, and I sat there and I had already told her that, and then I started counting the time, and about a week before the debate I called Ross. I seldom called him, but in this case I said, "You know, I'm in luck. Nobody has ever mentioned that debate, and it's too late to invite me, and I think that's as it ought to be because I'm not a politician." He said, "Oh, Jim, I forgot to tell you. Your invitation came here about three weeks ago and we accepted for you, and I forgot to tell you." So that was the preparation.
JIM LEHRER: So you never sat down with briefing books, or didn't discuss this with Ross Perot in any way whatsoever?
ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: I never had a single conversation about politics with Ross Perot in my life; still haven't.
And yet, this guy still got off some of the best lines in that debate. He definitely seemed out of place, but in a good way, like a human being who just waded into a strange, inhuman setting. Nobody ever remembers anything beyond "Who am I? Why am I here," but he went on to very succinctly explain why he was there, why he felt himself capable to do the job as VP, despite being thrust unwillingly into the role.
JIM LEHRER: Do you feel that these debates should focus less on issues and more on these character kinds of things?
ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Yes. I think character is permanent, and issues are transient. Half the issues they - are so polished they're talking about - are dead by the time they get into the office, and into the midst of their tour where they're really productive. So this is just a rhetoric exercise generally. This idea, as you know, that I have firm convictions that the idea of issues being a big deal where our mutual friend went back and he felt so strongly that the determining factor in electoral success should be a proven character. And you've got to design these so that everybody can somehow portray his character.
We could do worse than picking leaders for those reasons, and we could have done far worse than Admiral Stockdale.