Hall of Shame
By J. D. Piro
October 26, 2006
Debates create moments that can frame an issue (as Ronald Reagan did with "Are you better off now . . .") or define a candidate (President Ford's premature liberation of Poland). The web site of The Times Herald-Record, an Orange County publication, has posted examples of both moments-excerpts from a debate between incumbent Representative Sue Kelly and her increasingly desperate challenger, John Hall.
"My opponent would like to raise your taxes," charges Ms. Kelly in one short excerpt. "He would raise your income tax, he would raise your Social Security tax, he is on record as backing bills that would do just that." Mr. Hall whines about how Ms. Kelly is portraying him as a tax-raiser. "You voted to raise the gas tax," Ms. Kelly continues, "when you were on the school board, you voted to raise property taxes." Mr. Hall's voice rises as he launches into an explanation of property tax levies.
As Ms. Kelly points out, the tax cuts kick-started the economy, sparking low unemployment, a rising stock market, and a falling deficit. But the defining moment for Mr. Hall comes in a second, longer excerpt.
In the midst of a turgid dissertation on "responsibility", Mr. Hall takes a cheap shot at Ms. k," Mr. Hall asserts casually. Ms. Kelly served as chair of the Congressional page board in 1999 and 2000, which was six years before the scandal broke. (If Mr. Hall's going to solve the deficit, he'd better brush up on his arithmetic.) Kelly, attempting to tie her to the Congressional page scandal that broke three weeks ago. "It was under your watch that these children were at ris
Ms. Kelly cuts Mr. Hall off in mid-accusation. She leans forward and, firmly but indignantly, says: "I resent that implication." Mr. Hall, still thinking this is an easy lay-up, tries to dismiss her. "I'm sorry you do, but I had to mention it," he explains, as if mindlessly spouting a list of Democratic talking points.
At that point, the fun begins. Ms. Kelly corrects Mr. Hall's chronology and then turns to the neophyte challenger: "I want to know how you can sit there and deceive people?" she demands. "I'm a mother, I'm a teacher, I'm a grandmother. I have three bills in Congress that have passed to stop people from abusing children. I have fought for children all of my life!"
Then comes the defining moment. Ms. Kelly looks at her opponent and says: "You have no shame!" And, apparently, no voice-Mr. Hall is rendered momentarily speechless.
Even the least-experienced high school debater would have tried to get off some kind of response during this. Unfortunately for Mr. Hall, the camera remains on him for the entire exchange and his body language betrays him. As Ms. Kelly admonishes him, Mr. Hall fails to maintain eye contact with her. (By contrast, a previous cutaway shot had shown Ms. Kelly sitting ram-rod straight, confident, her blue eyes staring at Mr. Hall with the intensity of a laser beam.) His eyes shift downward and away from Ms. Kelly.
As Mr. Hall shifts uncomfortably in his chair, Ms. Kelly continues her fusillade. At this point, Mr. Hall resembles a little boy who mouthed off to his mom and now has to listen respectfully to a lecture without displaying any further impertinence, for fear that worse consequences will befall him.
"My opponent would like to condemn me with no facts," Ms. Kelly continues, emotional but still in control of the exchange. Squirming now, Mr. Hall shifts his gaze between Ms. Kelly and the unseen questioner, as if beseeching for assistance in ending the onslaught.
Flustered by Ms. Kelly's assault, Mr. Hall backtracks. "I was not, uh, condemning you, with or without facts", he begins-a weak retort that is unlikely to garner him an entry in the "Debating Book of Witty One-Liners". He then starts talking about the federal debt.
But the camera, as if sensing that he's on the ropes, slowly closes in on Mr. Hall and we can assess his shaken reaction to Ms. Kelly's verbal lambasting. As he tries to regain his footing, his eyes shift from Ms. Kelly to the moderator to the table-top and, it seems at one point, to the ceiling. As Ms. Kelly hammers away ("You are shameful in your behavior!"), he finally pleads with her to relent ("If you'd just be quiet and listen to the rest of my sentence!").
As political theater, it doesn't get any better than this. (The link, by the way, is at www.recordonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?Category=media02)
Here at Briefing Book, we understand that John Hall wants more debates, but that Sue Kelly won't agree. We're with Sue. After all, it's illegal to torture your opponents.