Stumbling on the heels of the saturnalia that was the first presidential debate, Susan Page, moderator of the one and only vice presidential round, felt compelled to repeat frequently the rules of the road to Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, hoping thereby to avoid playing high priest to two drunken vice-Caesars. So she tended toward a somewhat overdone but understandable reiteration of her favorite English collocation: “without interruption.” More than two-thirds into the 90-minute debate, Page was still calling out time limits and qualifying them. “You have two minutes—without interruption.” At the two minute and one second mark, she would swiftly cut in with a punctual and peremptory “Thank you.”
As the night wore on, she thanked them more and more, eventually becoming the most obliged person in the country. It was almost as if she were a serf, bowing forward while exiting backward, thanking a benevolent king for sparing her life: “Thank you, my liege, thank you, o thank you”—though with far less fulminating enthusiasm. In fact, her Thank You stream grew less ebullient and more clipped as the night wore on. “Thank you” became “Thank you” became “Thank you, Mr. Pence,”—eventually becoming a very non-thankful intermission, by which she chastised the two tributaries after overflowing at a garbling bridgehead, the one spillover of the evening. “I did not create the rules for tonight,” she pronounced, removing fault, then speedily reapplying it: “but your two campaigns agreed to them.” After which the pack reverted to its dissimulated civility.
By any measure, the evening proceeded reasonably, without interruption. This was about as civil as any advocate of free speech and the benefits redounding from “vigorous debate” could hope for. And let’s be honest: no one wants to watch a debate completely free of interruptions.
On this score, the gladiators did not disappoint. There were moments when voices overlapped, and words interlarded themselves between others, and phrases dropped off midway to their periods, and speakers made ragged cliff-edges of sentences.
Harris was observably anticipating this. Her first “I’m speaking now, okay?” came out of the barrel with such resentful forcefulness that one would think Pence had been stepping over her words all night instead of merely for the first time. Harris trotted out this studied line in female empowerment at any interference from Pence, from a begging-to-differ to a chair fidget to a fly-swat. She administered each subsequent “I’m speaking now” in the manner of a reproving schoolmistress. The contrived finger-wagging routine didn’t work on Pence, who is in fact over six years old and acts the part—unlike Trump, who is older than Pence but seems to have reached that point where one begins to loop around and start over.
Harris and Pence also showed themselves to be masters of the art of the dodge. No species of human is so remarkable as the politician for so accurately not meeting a question. Rhetoricians less skillful, or less practiced, merely avoid, elide, dither, defer, circumnavigate. Certainly, politicians do all these things, but in doing so they leave one wondering what exactly it was they did. Nobody else manages to miss with such accuracy. In answer to your question, you get more than you wanted and nothing you asked for.
Harris: “You wanna talk about packing the court, let’s talk about packing the court”—from which she proceeded to talk about everything but that. Pence committed his own air-filler on Trump’s refusal to commit himself to a peaceful transition of power in case of his defeat at the polls. He transferred the power of that question by shifting its focus from Trump’s reluctance to concede defeat to the opposition’s intention to invalidate victory. Though more elegantly paved, Pence’s route was just as circuitous, and he ended in the same place as his boss on the question: nowhere.
Americans have a tradition of making the last question of any debate a flippant one, as if to provide a lighthearted detoxification. This round’s moment was provided by the adorable Brecklynn Brown (perfect alliteration), an eighth-grader (perfect age) from Springville, Utah (perfectly generic city). And she posed a perfect question: “When I watch the news, all I see is arguing. If our leaders can’t get along, how are the citizens to get along?” The candidates, showing their most sympathetic face, answered as you might expect.
With all due respect to eighth-graders, and with less respect to the adults who exploit them, if I were on that stage, I would have had a quite different answer than those given. “First, your politician is not your rabbi, priest, parent, or happy coach. Thank you for the question, but I think I’ll use my time to reiterate the importance of the issues on the table.” And then I would proceed to say something about Iran and nuclear jihadism, China’s human rights violations, Covid, the economy, and other matters.
In any case, if the first presidential debate went to Biden (perhaps by default), then this round went to Pence. He has already been called a sexist bigot for interrupting a black woman, who is not so much a black woman as she is a vice presidential candidate—if she were a man, we would not be counting interruptions like mail-in ballots. This outrage, like most these days, was prefabricated.
The true outrage, in my opinion, is that no one ever told Susan Page, You’re welcome.
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images