One of them was sure to lose re-election in his home state and accepted a vice-presidential nomination that more prominent figures in his party wouldn’t even consider. The other assailed the eventual nominee on the racial theme that would become the leitmotif of the age and months later left the presidential race after her campaign fizzled.
Wednesday night’s debate between contenders for the second spot in the executive branch of the United States may have seemed like the public refutation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s nostrum, from “The Last Tycoon,” that "there are no second acts in American lives.'' Indeed, that phrase hung over the proceedings in Salt Lake City — for it comes from an unfinished novel with a title that has special poignancy in an era with a self-proclaimed billionaire president recovering from a dangerous virus and a former vice president himself fighting partisan charges that he is too doddering to preside over the world’s lone superpower.
But this much must be acknowledged for Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris: Their sentences were complete. Their remarks were sensible. Their bearings were strong. Their manners generally were admirable, though not impeccable.
Indeed, they interrupted this raucous, unsavory political campaign by the mere act of hardly interrupting each other — at least not as often, or as rudely, as the interruptions from the late September presidential session.
"The manners, while not perfect, were significantly better than the presidential debate,'' said Jodi R.R. Smith, an etiquette consultant specializing in social and professional conduct and the author of “The Etiquette Book: A Complete Guide to Modern Manners,” adding, "They are being civil to each other, and there were kind words between the two — a pleasure to see. I wouldn’t have showed young children the first debate. I could share this with elementary school children.''
With one 32-year-old exception, history little notes nor long remembers vice-presidential debates. Who today remembers a single sound bite from the last time Mr. Pence debated, with Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2016 running mate? Does a single moment from the 2004 debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and Senator John Edwards of North Carolina ring in the American memory?
Wednesday presented no analogue to Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s 1988 upbraiding of Senator Dan Quayle, who met the Indiana lawmaker’s effort to compare his relative inexperience with the young, callow John F. Kennedy with a devastating rehearsed comeback that he was chary of delivering, for fear of seeming discourteous: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Mr. Pence and Ms. Harris are no Jack Kennedy, to be sure. But Mr. Kennedy wasn’t the Jack Kennedy of legend until he became president, and many figures with modest or even diminished reputations —here Theodore Roosevelt (president, 1901-1909) comes to mind, and so do Harry Truman (1945-1953) and Gerald R. Ford (1974-1977) — became important forces once they ascended, in various forms of tragedy, to the White House.
Both figures separated by curved plexiglass barriers and standing 12 feet 3 inches apart on the Kingsbury Hall stage Wednesday showed signs of that potential.
Mr. Pence, with a term as governor of Indiana and a dozen years in the House of Representatives, has far more conventional political experience than President Donald J. Trump and in some ways inspires more fear from his partisan rivals; he displayed in Wednesday’s forum a surefootedness that Mr. Trump lacks and spoke — sometimes after his time had expired, a practice that the etiquette expert Ms. Smith deplored — with authority on taxes, trade, energy and described his rival as an advocate of a “radical environmental agenda.”
Ms. Harris, a former prosecutor with important ties on Capitol Hill, especially if the Democrats seize control of the Senate, displayed fluency and mastery. When Mr. Pence said that former Vice President Joe Biden would “raise your taxes” on “Day One,” Ms. Harris said that taxes in a Biden administration would rise only for the rich — and twice told the Vice President she would “not be lectured” by him.
On the issues, neither of the two veered substantially from the standard-bearer of their respective parties, hewing closely to the views of the presidential nominees themselves. This is not insignificant; two vice presidents who ascended to the top position after the death of a president, John Tyler (1841-1845) and Andrew Johnson (1865-1869), prompted bitter party rebellions when they led the country in new, unforeseen directions.
Mr. Pence defended the Trump approach to the virus, asserted that a vaccine was imminent and challenged Ms. Harris not to “undermine” confidence in a response to the hurried effort to produce a response to the pandemic. Ms. Harris described the administration’s handling of the threat as “incompetent.”
The Vice President artfully skirted difficult queries, ignoring questions about the possible future disability of Mr. Trump; the assembling of scores of people without masks and at close quarters at the unveiling of a Supreme Court nominee at the White House event; whether climate change was an “existential threat” to the planet; and whether the White House was transparent about Mr. Trump’s condition after he was diagnosed with COVID-19 — and instead used the questions to criticized Mr. Biden’s record in the Barack Obama administration. Ms. Harris, who avoided the question about packing the Supreme Court, pressed the Democrats' case, arguing that Mr. Trump prosecuted the “greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.”
Perhaps Ms. Harris smiled too much, perhaps Mr. Pence projected smugness. But neither candidate came through as a 21st century version of Alexander Throttlebottom, the witless vice president in the 1931 Broadway show “O Thee I Sing” by George Gershwin and Morrie Ryskind. In that regard, they both passed a fundamental test.
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