Questions I’d Ask During Tonight’s Debate

There’s a presidential debate tonight, in case you didn’t know (which, if you didn’t, what’s it like to live in a world devoid of phones, TV, computers, electricity, and angst? And what, exactly, does it mean to be Amish?). It will be America’s first time to see the two men vying to lead our great nation go head-to-head on domestic policy issues: the economy, healthcare, the role of government, and governing. In the grand tradition of presidential debates, someone is certain to come off like a doofus.

I’m sure that the estimable Jim Lehrer, he who moderates all serious debates, will have done plenty of prep work concerning the questions the candidates will answer. And I’m also sure that both candidates will do their best to try and get some digs in on their opponent, while saying that sound substantive but lack flavor (think of rice cakes; now imagine them as words coming from a person’s mouth). Given both of those things, it’s sure to be a fairly standard debate.

But I don’t want standard. I think we should spice it up. I think we need to throw in questions that no person in their right mind would ask a potential president, questions that cut to the soul of a man and reveal his true mettle.

If I were Jim Lehrer, here’s some questions I’d like answered during tonight’s debate:

  • A man lies dead, in a room with no windows and doors. His shirt is wet and bloody. He has been obviously stabbed in the chest, only there are no weapons found in the room. How would you make this the fault of your opponent?
  • I’m going to say a word, and I’d like you to give me a five minute, extemporaneous speech based on that word. The word is: lock-box.
  • Why do the Oreoes people insist on misspelling the word “Stuft”?
  • Iran is on the verge of nuclear capability. Israel is going to nuke the snot out of them before they can activate the bomb. On a scale from 1 to 10, tell me how scared you are of each country, and then tell me where I can find a good Kosher deli in Denver.
  • Is has been asserted that you, Mr. Romney, are out of touch with the average American because of your wealth. Mr. Obama, in the office of the president you receive a nice salary, a free house, free travel, free security, free food, free TV coverage, and a bullet-proof office. So, what else do you and Mr. Romney have in common?
  • Given what I just said about the presidency, Mr. Romney, how will you handle a downgrade in your living conditions?
  • I’m going to say a word and I want you to say the first thing that comes to your mind: strategery.
  • Have you ever drank Tab?
  • Who’s a better James Bond: Sean Connery or Daniel Craig?
  • You have made many promises during this election cycle. If I were to ask your wife how many promises you’ve broken to her, what would her answer be, and which broken promise hurt her the most?
  • If you’re elected, would you ever be tempted to just wear gym shorts and a faded Batman t-shirt into the office on a random Monday?
  • Your favorite Beatles song. Go.
  • Which would you rather eat: fried green tomatoes or boiled okra?
  • If you accidentally passed gas during a State of the Union address, would you A) pretend nothing happened; B) blame your Vice-President; C) own up to it by making it into a joke; or D) do whatever the recent polls told you to do.
  • What is your favorite Interweb meme?
  • Given your access to classified information, if you’re elected president would you finally reveal to the American people which individual or group was responsible for letting the dogs out?
  • And finally, gentlemen: if you lose the election in November, will you consider the abuse, speculation, animosity, divisiveness, hatred, screed, and rigmarole heaped upon you, your families and your campaign workers worth it?

Let’s see Jim Lehrer top that.

No More For Hitch

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011.

Just saw that Christopher Hitchens, the ultra-famous essayist and cultural critic, died in Houston from pneumonia, as a result of his ongoing battle with esophageal cancer. He was 62.

I became familiar with Hitchens because of his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I won’t say I liked the book because I completely disagreed with Hitchens worldview, but I will say that the man had a power with words, using them to hone his rhetoric to a razor’s keen. I started reading his other works – essays in Slate, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic and other outlets – as well as catching some of the various YouTube videos that featured him.

Hitchens was that rare breed: as influential on the stage as on the page, and his voice (curiously the victim of his cancer) was a marvelous mixture of baritone and honey. Shoot, you add in his native accent, and there’s not a whole heck of a lot of people who wouldn’t sit in a room and listen to him read minutes from the last Congressional budget hearing. The man was that good.

I only saw him in person once. It was in Birmingham, Alabama, at the Birmingham Sheraton Hotel, hard by I-20 right in the heart of downtown. The event was a debate between Hitchens and noted mathematician David Berlinski, and it was hosted by Fixed-Point Foundation, a Birmingham-based Christian organization whose founder, Larry Taunton, had an interesting friendship with Hitchens. I went with some co-workers, and we took a seat on Hitchens’ side of the room, about six rows back.

Captured still from the CSPAN footage of the Hitchens-Berlinski debate.

He was pale and looked decidedly ill, his head without a hint of hair as the result of his chemo and other treatments. But somehow he still had presence, an uncanny ability to fill the room with his thoughts and words and voice. The crowd was decidedly pro-Hitchens, but the question up for debate (“Does Atheism Poison Everything?”) was directly in Hitchens’ wheelhouse; it was like throwing a 72-mph fastball down the middle to Albert Pujols. Bye-bye, see-you-later, here’s a souvenir to take home to the kiddies.

And poor Berlinski couldn’t keep up.

After the debate was over, we went to a restaurant in the hotel for a post-debate review. My colleagues and I discussed Hitchens’ strengths and weaknesses in the debate (there were far more of the former than the latter), and settled fairly simply on the conclusion that Hitchens had won in a rout.

That was when Hitchens walked by. He had a gaggle of gorgeous young people around him, each one holding his autobiography Hitch-22 (a good read) beneath their arms, each one giddy to be in his wake. The groupies trailed him all the way to the bar and formed an instant wall around the man as he ordered his drink.

It is well documented that Hitchens liked the recipe. Perhaps it lubricated his brain and vocal chords simultaneously, I don’t know. But as he stood there at the bar, chatting and signing books and trying to get a sip of something amber whenever he could, I turned to my colleagues and said, “When he comes back by, I’m gonna ask him what he drinks.”

“Why?” one of my friends asked.

“Because I just want to know,” I said.

I really can’t tell you why, other than this arcane idea that what a man drinks tells you something about his character. I think I read that in a Louis L’Amour novel once upon a time. Or maybe it was Hemingway. Probably L’Amour.

Sure enough, the ailing atheist walked past our table and I screwed up enough courage to follow him.

“Mr. Hitchens?” I called out.

He turned and looked at me, his face tired.

“I hate to bother you, but may I ask you a question?”

He gestured towards the elevator bank down the hall with his glass. “If you don’t mind asking it as I walk. It’s been a long night and I am very tired.”

“Certainly,” I said, and with that we were walking together towards the elevators.

“I would like to know what kind of whiskey you drink,” I said.

He looked at me. “Curiosity?”

“Yes. Mostly.”

He smiled. “Johnny Walker Black.”

“Why?” I asked. I guess I had expected something a little more…sophisticated. Some obscure scotch or something.

“Because,” he said, taking a sip from his glass, “it’s a good whiskey, smooth, with a nice finish. I enjoy it. And, I can find it almost anywhere in the world.”

“Aren’t there better whiskeys?”

“Certainly. But the best isn’t always available. Johnny Walker is.”

I nodded. I didn’t really have any other questions for the man, so I stuck out my hand. “Well, thank you for your time.”

“That’s it?” he asked as he shook my hand. “You’ve no other questions for me?”

“No sir. Thank you for your time.”

“Cheers,” he said, raising his glass to me. Just then, Larry Taunton came around the corner and took Hitchens the rest of the way to the elevators. I went back to my co-workers.

They all looked at me as I returned.

“Johnny Walker Black,” I said as I took my seat.

Someone asked why.

“Convenience,” I said. “It’s not the best, but he can always get it.”

Christopher Hitchens went to his grave denying the existence of God. He kept his word – there was no deathbed conversion, no last-minute Hail Mary to save his eternal soul. What he refused to believe in life he refused to believe in death. Somewhere, someone will write about his consistency of belief, and how it should be seen as a credit to the man.

I won’t write that. I think the man had a powerful mind, an even more powerful ego, and chose an unfortunate path, both for his whiskey and his worldview:

He simply took what was readily available instead of holding out for what was best.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

My blog post from yesterday stirred up quite a bit of discussion on the Loganville-Grayson Patch, and I’ve spent a bit of time today trying to thoughtfully address some of the questions, concerns, and comments that people have taken the time to post. It’s been exhausting. I’m grateful that no one has been anything close to mean or spiteful – in fact, almost every post has been positive in some way, shape or form (though not necessarily positive about the Southern Baptist Convention).

Long story short – for those who want to spend their lives basking in the never-ending pull and push of public life, you won’t be getting any competition from me. And here’s why:

I had to take Ella back to the doctor’s today because her chest still seems congested, and this after about 2 gallons of steroids, a heavy round of Z-pac, and enough aerosol albuterol to punch a hole in Venus’ ozone layer. We were sitting in the doc’s office, Ella on the exam table, me in the parental chair of torture, and while the doctor busily typed notes into his computer, I caught myself staring at Ella.

She sat there, so sweetly, so still, and her tininess – her childishness, I guess – struck me deeply. So innocent. So non-adult. So precious.

So mine.

And in the midst of talking to the doctor about her various bouts with asthma, the potential for some heretofore undiscovered issue to be the cause of her repeated distress, and what we needed to do to help her get better, I just felt the overwhelming desire to hug my kid. To just stand up, grab her around her neck, nuzzle her cheeks, and kiss her square on the forehead.

I fought it, mainly because it would’ve been hard to explain to the doc and because Ella would’ve pitched a royal conniption. But the urge was there, motivated by an extreme love for my child.

There are a lot of things in this life that we can expend energy on, things that may seem important – and sometimes really ARE important – but at the end of the day, none of those things outstrips the importance of family. I’ve recently been tabbed as “the homework parent” and while attempting to work with Ella can sometimes be as frustrating as all get out, I have to confess that I love every minute of it, especially when she finally “gets” a concept or completes an assignment with particular pride.

Looking at her in that doctor’s office made me realize just how futile, sometimes, the “bigger” things in life can be.

I think I’m done with the comment surfing for today. I think I’m just going to go home instead and love on my kids and my wife and enjoy the most underrated and overlooked privilege of all: anonymity.

A Letter to My Children: The Debt Ceiling, Politicians, and My Failure as a Father

Dear Ella and Jon –

Both of your great-grandfathers served in World War II in the European theater. Pop Emmette, your Nonna’s father, was assigned to a postmasters’ outfit in France just before the final collapse of Berlin. Pop Harold, your Poppy’s dad, was a quartermaster with the Army who helped with the final supply lines for the troops who ended the European front of the war.

I’m telling you this because last night, as the current president Barack Obama, took to the airwaves to speak about a deadlock in debt ceiling negotiations (which is a fancy way of saying that the USA is about to run out of money) I realized the death of the America in which I came of age. Both of your great-grandfathers were contributors to that America, one that held certain ideals about the nation itself and what it took to make it great. Their generation, by no means perfect, was at the very least rooted in a system of shared belief that the good of the many outweighed the wants of the few. They fought for this belief and applied it in their lives, and expected those around them, including the politicians sent to represent them in Washington D.C., to do the same.

I’m no historian, but I would argue that the same belief your great-grandfathers harbored has been a dominant piece of the American ethos since the inception of this nation. It was the ignition for the American Revolution, it was the self-destructive impulse behind the Civil War, and it was the rallying cry that rescued the nation from the Great Depression and ushered us to victory in the Second World War. Our historical documents are loaded with language about the “good of the people” and our rhetoric for 235 years has been that we are a nation of many who stand as one.

It’s even our national motto: E Pluribus Unum. From the many, one.

But that America is dead now. It no longer exists, and I spent the better part of last night trying to figure out who should bear the responsibility for the death blow.

I was tempted to blame the politicians who are currently in office, the egotistical buttheads who stand in front of their media pulpits and proclaim that they are working for the will of the American people when in reality they are working for a select group of individuals who share the same political ideology. The list of these demagogues is long and undistinguished, and all are guilty: President Obama, Rep. John Boehner, Rep. Eric Cantor, Sen. Harry Reid, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, and so on. Almost anyone that your father can currently see on TV or read about in the papers is someone who has shunted the good of the American people to the side in order to doggedly pursue their own personal vision of what America should be. Party affiliation, long a lament of the voting populace, has replaced the needs of the country, so that a relatively simple matter of raising our debt ceiling in order to preserve the economy for the short term while simultaneously working on a long term solution for our reckless spending has turned into a game of political chicken. The two parties are staring at each other, neither willing to concede anything because they can’t bring themselves to let the other party “win.”

And at this point, “win” is a loose term.

Instead, these people who are supposed to do what’s good for the nation both in the near and long terms are about to cause a systemic default on our financial obligations that could very well kill the economy in ways we’ve never even considered.

At a time when the economy is already barely breathing.

This would be like your dad arguing with your mom over what type of medicine you should be treated with while you were dying because you needed medicine.

What makes it even worse is the smug self-righteousness with which these politicians address the nation, telling us that what they are doing is what we want them to do. You will be old enough to understand this one day, so I’m going to go ahead and tell you: the people who have your best interests at heart actually shut up and listen to what you have to say. Even when they make decisions that go against your wishes, they at least cared enough to listen. You’ve grown up with this – you haven’t always liked the decisions your mother and I made, but as soon as you were old enough to share your thoughts and preferences with us, we allowed you to have your say and weighed it against the larger picture. When it made sense to do what you wanted, we capitulated and gave you the gift of empowerment (which is no small thing, let me tell you…). When it didn’t make sense, we did what was best for you and gave you the courtesy of an explanation.

The people currently in office don’t do either of those things, and as a grown-up adult with a voice and plenty of thoughts on the matter, it pisses me off to no end. It makes me mad. It actually makes me think fondly of the American Revolution and wonder if we might revisit such a drastic recourse.

I’m spit-balling, mind you – I make no bones about the fact that I wouldn’t even attempt to pick up a rifle at Walmart and challenge the US Government to a fight. But the dream is nice, and that’s sad; when your only outlet for your frustrations would seem to be dreaming of violent revolution, that says something about the system under which you’re living.

Which brings me to the point of my letter: the politicians are not to blame for the mess you will inherit.

I am.

And so is everyone else who has voted these types of politicians into power for the past thirty years.

You see, in a democratic system, the people choose who represent them. We get to shuffle into a soulless little box every few years and punch a button to decide the players who will decide our collective national fate. Once upon a time, this system worked, mainly because the people who voted wouldn’t stand for jack-legged egotists in office. Sure, they voted in a few windbags from time to time, but for the most part the men (and for a while, it was only men) elected to office held the idea and ideals of this nation to be their guiding principles. They believed, as your great-grandfathers did, that the many outweighed the few. They argued over the best approach to this goal, as any group of distinct individuals will, but more often than not they came to great compromises that propelled this nation forward as a vanguard. You can see the relics of this across the nation because we used to build monuments to our political leaders – the Washington monument, the Lincoln memorial, the Jefferson memorial; heck, we even sandblasted the living crap out of a South Dakota mountain so we could put the faces of four great American statesmen on its slope. We spent countless dollars erected these edifices to remind ourselves not only of the men and women who shaped our heritage, but of that heritage itself.

Nowadays, we wouldn’t waste money on a politician’s statue. We’ve discovered the subversive joys of naming waste-water reclamation facilities after them, which tells you how far things have fallen.

And yet they’ve fallen this far because we’ve let them. We’ve become something I can’t quite define, something that is frightening to consider. It’s hard to pinpoint why we’ve become a nation of cynics and skeptics, though one would suggest it’s the repeated exposure to leaders who suck, which only brings us back to the question of why the hell did we elect them then? When did we quit caring about who went to Washington? When did we collectively decide to roll over and let a narrow group of people on both sides of the aisle speak for the vast majority of us?

It would require a great deal of collective brainpower from sociologists, historians, political scientists, psychologists and Dionne Warwick to come up with a decent answer.

But I’d sure love to read it. For me, I just fall back on the old standard of blaming it all on Watergate. Or Dan Quayle.

Maybe one of you, or someone from your generation, will be the first to undertake such a massive study – the examination of the death of the American people’s collective idealism – and if so, I hope you find something substantial. Because to be honest, it seems from my vantage point to be nothing more than our own selfishness coming back to haunt us. We take what we get because we don’t care to fully participate. We tell ourselves that our vote doesn’t count because the weasels will still get elected, thereby ensuring that the weasels still get elected. If we do vote, we don’t do any research, or we simply wait until some paper or website or magazine produces a “how to vote” list, which, if you think about the history of this nation and all we fought against, is antithetical to what it means to be an American.

Mostly though, we just whine and gripe and moan. Kind of like this blog post – it serves no real purpose towards change. It’s just a way for me to get my two-cents out there and feel all justified at my anger.

If I really cared, I’d get my but down to whatever civic office is responsible for this sort of thing and register myself as a candidate for the next election. Or I’d begin a new political party, something like the Common Sense Party, or Bull Winkle Party, or Whigs, and petition some of the best and brightest people I know, people who would actually go to Washington and guide themselves by the old American ethos to do what is best for the country without being concerned about re-election.

Unfortunately, it seems I really am at fault for the mess we’re in. For that, I am truly sorry. My only hope is that I can raise you to be better than I am, and that you will be a generation that actually believes and cares enough to set things right.

I have failed you. But I believe you will not fail yourselves.

With my apologies, love and hope,