Master Debater Puts Trump vs Hillary in Context

I received an award from the NFL when I was in high school.

NFL-pin-209x300It was not from the No Fun League … I mean, National Football League … but from the governing body of competitive debate, the National Forensics League. Now known as the National Speech and Debate Association, I earned its Degree of Merit through tournament points.

Now we think of forensics in the realm of CSI and Abby Sciuto on NCIS, but it has a much older origin. Its Latin root refers to being “in the forum,” hence the concept of presenting facts in public to prove a point.

Even prior to the Romans, the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote his three books on rhetoric, from which I still teach salient points. In the time of the classical Greeks, the Golden Age before lawyers were invented, the people represented themselves in matters of public dispute. However, since being a good speaker was essential, citizens would turn to instructors called Sophists. Now you know why the term “sophistry” is used by politicians who want to denigrate an opponent who has more style than substance. Aristotle’s writings were a response to the Sophists so that people could read for themselves and learn the three tenets; the speaker, the audience, and the speech itself, without having to hire a coach.

So, from this classical evolution, we have tools with which to watch tonight’s main event: Trump vs. Hillary, Round One. Just like Ali vs. Frazier, this will play out as a trilogy with an undercard bout between two nondescript middle-aged white guys. Even though this will not be fought under NFL rules (football or forensics), we can use them as a guideline to keep score at home tonight.

Back in my day, when we only had three TV channels, our National Forensic League’s debate topic came directly from the post-Watergate era in which we were living. The topic was presented as “Resolved, that the method of electing the President and Vice-President should be changed.” Ironically, that topic is still germane. Two-person teams would then line up on the Affirmative side, supporting the resolution, or the Negative side, arguing for the status quo. Given our present polarized politics of paralysis, we can see these strategies are still in play.

AP45877270272-259x300Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump responds to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s closing remarks during the first Republican presidential debate at the Quicken Loans Arena Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)



Trump and Hillary will instead have a variety of resolutions put to them by the moderator Lester Holt. (More about his role to come…) In competitive terms, with topics known only to the moderator, this could be called extemporaneous speech, another format in which I have competed and won, but the two campaigns should already have a good idea of questions that should arise. There is really no excuse for not being prepared for the “Top Ten” issues for each candidate. Therefore, fumbling a question should not happen.

When I have worked in political campaigns, I actually trained my charges in how to give the answer they want to give, regardless of the question. I teach the same techniques to my journalism students at Full Sail University, so they can see when a skilled person is dodging a tough question during an interview or news conference. Watch for this tonight:

3step formulaIf asked a narrow, pointed question about a specific concept or incident, the defensive person can change it to a broader, big-picture concept that is more comfortable or at least a place to retreat. To wit, if asked about the current Charlotte case, I would train my client to say:

“While any loss of life is regrettable, we must also understand that freedom of expression is one of our most sacred rights, enshrined in the very First Amendment. It is my hope that people of good will can also use their freedom of speech to resolve matters in the highest spirit of our national traditions.”

You can hear the fife and drum in the background and get a warm patriotic feeling, but was anything actually said about the specific case? Of course not.

In proper debate competition, there is true equal time given to the opposing parties, unlike the GOP blatherfests during the primaries when “time of possession” was measured with a stopwatch, just like a coach breaking down tape from a football game. Structured under the rules, there is a speech, a rebuttal of equal length, alternating between affirmative and positive. In many tournaments, there is also a brief cross-examination period between speeches in which opponents can question each other’s facts brought into evidence.

The made-for-TV events have actually devolved from true debates. There are two that we hold up as the great examples, Lincoln-Douglas in 1858, and Kennedy-Nixon in 1960. Let’s break down the tape and see if we can pick up anything for tonight.

First, to clear up the historical context, Lincoln and Douglas were candidates for the U.S. Senate from Illinois. Additionally, since this was before the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, Senators were still selected by state legislators and not directly in public elections. However, both candidates were determined to make their cases in a series of seven public presentations, thereby influencing voters to elect legislators that would pick one man over the other. Second, there was no moderator. The two principals just had at each other, but with 19th Century good manners, each man let the other finish before taking the lectern to rebut.

Thus, there are actually few parallels between the contest tonight and that historic one. The series of debates will be less than half as many, they will not directly argue against each other, and I have low expectations for good manners. Tonight, Emily Post will be no more in evidence than Robert’s Rules of Order.

The battle between Kennedy and Nixon, as the first such televised event, was a watershed moment for several reasons, some well-known and one in particular not so much. Radio listeners thought Nixon won the debate but television viewers felt Kennedy won, in yet another example of TV messing something up. As the sitting Vice-President, Nixon had a wealth of knowledge about the current administration and radio listeners felt he won the debate on content. As the nominee of the party out of power, JFK could be on offense, raising criticisms and appeared to viewers as having more initiative.

The big difference, as we now know, is that Kennedy was younger, more handsome (but beside Nixon, who wouldn’t be?), and had actually worked on his tan during debate prep. Nixon, who refused TV makeup, looked weaker and perspired visibly. Nixon was coming off of a hospitalization and I can both empathize and sympathize (there is a difference). I was a week out of back and neck surgery and had to give an orientation speech to new PhD candidates. By the end of my 45-minute talk, including Q&A, I was soaked from head to toe and had to go straight home to bed to finish my convalescence. I was not on national TV competing for the position of “The Most Powerful Man in the World” so I can only imagine the grit required of Nixon to go on stage that night.

John F. Kennedy, JFK, Richard Nixon

Democrat Sen. John Kennedy, left and Republican Richard Nixon, right, as they debated campaign issues at a Chicago television studio on Sept. 26, 1960. Moderator Howard K. Smith is at desk in center. (AP Photo)

Here is the dirty little secret (acquired through my own published research) from that night which is still in play tonight. JFK had begun receiving his classified briefings, just as Trump and Clinton are now. Kennedy, therefore, knew about a little CIA operation that was cooking on the back burner that would be aimed at newly-Communist Cuba. Of course, Nixon was also aware of it. During the debate, Kennedy “scored” by criticizing the Eisenhower-Nixon administration about not being more active against Fidel Castro. If I had been Nixon, I would have been tempted to say, “Oh yeah? I’ve got a secret exile guerrilla outfit getting trained right to go invade Cuba. So, I got your active right here!” Nixon, however, had to hold his tongue and take it. Of course, once JFK was elected and inherited that operation, it became known as the Bay of Pigs debacle. Sometimes karma can bite you squarely in the buttocks.

I will be watching for a moment in which Trump, not highly regarded for his impulse control skills, will pull something out of his head from his classified briefings and say “Oh yeah? What about (Insert national secret here)?”

Finally, in competitive debate, there is an actual judge scoring the event. Each team also keeps a flowchart of every argument and piece of evidence brought up by the opposition. In essence, we were outlining opponents’ speeches while they were giving them. Then, we would go point-by-point from our flowchart to dismantle whatever they said, and so on back and forth.

If the opposing team failed to refute something we said, we actually would speak directly to the judge and say something like, “As the negative team did not refute the third clause in our rebuttal, flow that through for the affirmative.” Anything they couldn’t answer, we suggested was out point by default. Sometimes, you could actually see the judges make a long line on their score sheet with a highlighter, literally pulling points for us into the final tally. Lester Holt, an anchorman of good reputation, will not be in the role of judge and hopefully will not endeavor to be an arbiter like Candy Crowley in 2012.

In closing arguments, we would summarize all of our uncontested points, in case any had been missed. My then-partner, now the good Herr Doktor Colonel (ret) Paul Hough, handled our eloquence chores with a masterful opening speech and an equally fine closing speech that he actually composed while the debate was going on so it would fit whatever had come up. I did the dirty work in the two middle speeches, down in the trenches, arguing from the seat of my pants and drawing from my eidetic memory. We were a great team, he with his pre-military bearing and commanding voice, and me with my scrambling intensity. (Note: It would be interesting to have at least one of the debates be a team event, with the Presidential and Vice-Presidential nominees arguing as a ticket.)

This will be opposite both Monday Night Football and WWE and is expected to pull perhaps 100 million viewers. As such, I should handicap this contest, being the degenerate sports gambler that I am (as well as placing third in last Saturday’s FSU charity blackjack tournament over at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa).

This iron man match will go the distance for the full 90 minutes, but Trump will win via style over substance on a medium he has mastered. He may also put Hillary in the Figure-Four Leglock. Hey, he is in the WWE Hall of Fame for a reason. The only thing that would surprise me if Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson rushes the stage and whacks somebody with a steel folding chair.

About drronthomasjr

Dr. Ron Thomas, Jr. heads Thomas Consulting Group, a consortium of professionals in leadership, crisis management, and media relations.
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