During my last two years of high school I decided to take debate largely because my year doing oratory in competition as a sophomore was a big disaster. I realized that I was better speaking on my feet rather than giving a long prepared rendition of something I had written. I thought debate looked like fun and of course being a teenager with a short view of things it also looked like much less work.
I was right about the fun part, but not about the work part. To be a good debater a person must prepare, prepare, prepare and prepare some more.
Debate taught me how to truly do research, particularly record research. As a high school student trying to deal with a national topic it was difficult to find authorities on a subject who would talk with me so I could do primary work, but record research became second hand after while.
While I don't remember a lot of specifics about the debates I and my partner engaged in 35 years later, I do remember one lesson I learned from the experience. That lesson is if you tell a fib, even unknowingly, it will catch up with you.
My senior year (1969-70) the national topic for high school debate was something like "Should the United States enter into unilateral military action in other parts of the world when the need is deemed necessary by congress." Now if you're an old debater who worked with that topic that year you know that the debate really turned out to be a drawn out discussion about whether the United States should be in Vietnam or not. It was a profound topic for a bunch of young men and women whose numbers might have to face the prospects of going into that conflict a year or two down the road.
About halfway through the season I remember that I found this great quote from a well known Federal source that basically said the formulative basis for such unilateral action was unwarranted. I can't remember the source of the words or the exact quote, but I do remember the jist of it.
The next week we were debating Highland High School's team and my partner and I were assigned the negative side of the debate for our first match of the day. The other team was very good and pulled out strong evidence in favor of unilateral intervention. When it was my time to rebut them, I pulled out my little file card and used it as my basis for why our government should not be able to intervene in such situations. I was glib, had facts and of course that strong quote from a well know authority. I thought sure we had won.
But the next time the Highland team got up to speak, my opponent pulled out the basically the same quote, but slightly changed enough to have exactly the opposite meaning. I was infuriated as he used it. Then he pointed out that he had pulled the quote directly from the original source, I believe it was from Newsweek or Time. I on the other hand had pulled the quote from a Readers Digest article that had condensed the same story a year later. They had also condense the quote as well. He pointed that fact out and I was skewed by the judges eyes right then and there. I knew we had lost that debate because I had unknowingly taken something out of context because another source told me it was so.
Debate in high school is not only about sources and information, it is also about style, the ability to parry an opponents arguments and good summation.
For the last three weeks we, the American public, have been subjected to three debates between the presidential candidates and one between the vice presidential hopefuls. After every debate the television stations have taken polls of citizens about who won each debate. Each time the numbers often look like the polls that were taken before the debate about who people were going to vote for. Presidential debates seldom change the minds of people who are solidly in one camp or the other, but they do serve to show the people running in a bit different light, and give the American public a chance to hear questions answered and counter answered with both candidates in the same room. The only groups votes affected are usually the undecided voters.
The problem with these debates, however, are the facts. In every debate, but particularly in the third debate in Tempe, Ariz., there were scads of "facts" that came out of each candidates mouth. Usually those facts referred to the others record, what has happened during their tenure or some number that was generated by some agency somewhere buried well within the bureaucracy of the Federal government. In the past these facts, being so voluminous, were often passed over for scrutiny except by a few experts who might hear one or two they were privy to because of their position in some obscure Federal or state agency. And for any kind of dispute of those facts to get out to the public was even more remote.
Today, however, with the advent of our multi-media and computer generated data bases, a number of independent fact finding agencies exist and within a couple of hours of the debates, they can tell you every piece of data or "fact" that the candidates may have intentionally or unintentionally fudged on.
In the case of these debates, there were volumes of facts, on many kinds of subjects, that both candidates got wrong, either on purpose, by miscue, misinterpretation or from pure lack of knowledge. Like that judge who looked at me in a classroom at Highland High in the winter of 1970, I view this kind of behavior from both candidates as very suspect. Forget style, smoothness, passion, or any other factor you want to throw in, if someone can't tell the truth and get the facts straight in a public debate, he either ought to fire his staff for giving him false or skewed information, or examine his own set of ethics for knowingly using false statements to make a point.
For me, this debate was not so much about Kerry vs. Bush but about the truth and I wasn't satisfied with either mans propensity to tell it. It doesn't matter whether you wrap it in an ivy league smothered smooth championship debate style or in a country like, down home package, a misconception, a piece of misinformation, a manipulated statistic, or maybe we should call it by what it really is, a lie, doesn't sit well with me.
Because of this, I feel neither one of these men won the debates, and now all we have to chose from are third party candidates, who never got the chance to tell their "truths" or two men who I am not sure I can trust.