SPEARFISH — In a way, Tuesday’s Presidential debate between President Donald J. Trump and Democratic hopeful Joe Biden was a breath of fresh air – in a time where our country has been fractured by political divides that would make the Grand Canyon blush, we seem to all be unified in our profound disappointment in the underperformance and lack of civility shown by the two men we have to choose from to lead out country for the next four years.
“I could not watch it, it was such a degradation of what I admire. It was more like a drunken family reunion than it was a presidential debate.”
That was the official assessment by Bob Speirs, debate coach and language arts teacher at Spearfish High School.
Although Speirs said he couldn’t stomach watching the two presidential candidates bandy personal attacks and half-cocked media talking points back and forth like a pair of bickering old uncles at Thanksgiving, he did study the accounts of other prominent commentators.
“I couldn’t sleep so I was up at 1 o’clock (researching the debate). I was researching the debate all night,” he said.
Speirs said he’s had students from his 30+ years of teaching and coaching who have gone on to become political pundits on both side of the isle. In looking at the feeds of his former students, Speirs said no one came out looking good Tuesday.
“The biggest takeaway for me is that there were people who were posting highlights from the debate – as if there were any – that the highlights of this debate were the only moments you could actually understand what one person was saying because they weren’t being interrupted or heckled,” he said. “The highlights would have been considered the low moments of some other debates.”
Speirs explained that the American style of debate is actually very different from the rest of the world.
“For the most part in American debate, because we’re not British – we’re not parliamentary, we don’t interject, we don’t interrupt. The rest of the world does. In the rest of the world, it’s a bloody brawl, much like an argument and in the United States we’ve always tried to rise above that,” he said. “Those rules fell apart.”
There is no formal rulebook to American debate; instead, Speirs said there has always been an understanding of decorum and etiquette, which should stem from a sense of mutual respect for the two opponents.
“In order to have a debate, you’re supposed to agree that both parties are equal and neither of them ceded that notion that they were debating an equal,” Speirs said. “The fact that they actually showed up and agreed to contest with you, they’re opening themselves up for defeat, and if you are a strong, confident debater, you appreciate that somebody came with the potential for you to beat them and showed up.”
Speirs said neither of the two men who took the stage Tuesday night showed that they were up to the task.
“I don’t believe that either of the two showed any respect for the office that either of them had held, or the office that they might hold in the future,” he said. “One of them should actually act like a president, and we would vote for them.”
Trump and Biden weren’t the only men to get lambasted for a poor showing at Tuesday night’s debate.
Speirs said Fox News commentator, Chris Wallace, did little to help steer the fracas.
“He wasn’t able to stay above the fray. He wasn’t able to moderate, because he took part,” he said.
Speirs said Wallace set himself up for failure from the very beginning by setting the forum of six-15 minutes segments consisting mostly of open discussion between the two candidates.
“That’s very unusual and that’s where the free-for-all started,” Speirs asserted. “That’s never been done before where you have a free-flow of back and forth like that, which Chris Wallace was unable to manage.”
Another critique of Wallace’s performance was his inability to remain impartial, which, as a media representative, Speirs said speaks to a much greater problem in America.
“I don’t think America believes that there’s an impartial media anymore and that’s probably been one of the most destructive things, as a debate coach, that’s occurred in the last 30 years,” he said.
Speirs said the ultimate expression of a debate is to present new information to an opposing side, in order to persuade them to come round to your way of thinking.
“There were no new facts or information that were sprung upon the public to help persuade them in one direction or another,” he added. “We’ve lost credible sourcing. We no longer believe what we read as truth. We believe that all of our research and science is purchased, or maybe we’ve had our eyes opened to the fact that a great deal of our science and research is purchased.”
In a normal presidential debate, Speirs said audiences should be able to see past bipartisan issues and personal proclivities and find that at the core of each candidate’s arguments is what’s best for the American people. That was not the case at Tuesday’s debate.
“Maybe a decade ago we thought the government was some ominous body, but it was a cohesive one and now we understand it isn’t,” he said. “They took personal shots at each other, ad hominem attacks where no evidence, just an assault on the character of the other person, which are generally not allowed, generally not seen as persuasive. But that’s not the real world.”
Speirs bluntly stated that in an imperfect reality, fueled by emotion and personal biases, what matters most in a debate is the person speaking.
“The thing that persuades more than anything else is a good person speaking well, and we’ve scared away the good person,” he said. “A great debate is done by great people … and great people are choosing not to serve because of how bitter and acrimonious and destructive a profit-driven media becomes in their assault on some political candidates.”
Speirs said this is the first time in his career that he does not plan on using the current presidential debate as a learning tool for his students.
“I have always used presidential debates in my classroom. We’ve always turned in and watched them and said, ‘which arguments worked and how did it work and how did they provide it.’ I can’t show what happened (Tuesday) in my classroom. That’s the first time that’s happened in 32 years,” he said.
As a debate coach who has led the Spearfish High School to five consecutive state championships in a row, Speirs did offer some advise to the two candidates, should this story make its way to their desks.
“I would remind President Trump of his office,” he said. “He is not trying to win an office, he’s trying to hold one that’s the highest in our country, that should be held in great reverence, and has been held by people that he greatly admires. And that he should revere the position.”
Speirs said he’s noticed a drastic change in Trump’s behavior since he took office.
“He’s very coachable, which I didn’t know he would be. I think he really needs to appreciate the confidence of the American people in his performance. He shouldn’t be threatened by the commentary of his opponent.”
And for Biden, Speirs advises not to sucked into posturing competition with the president.
“I would avoid the easy, backhanded, angry response,” Speirs advised. “He has some retorts he’s gotten into in normal debates where he mutters under his breath, negative name calling and interjects with, y’know, the, ‘shut up,’ which might or might not have been appropriate.”
Speirs said he looks forward to seeing the improvements the two candidates make before the next debate.
“I look forward to the next one, because I think it will be dramatically different. Neither side with want to do again, what happened (Tuesday). It was immensely destructive,” he said.
In the meantime, as the election draws ever nearer, and families come together for the holiday season; ultimately, there will be some very heated discussions had about the current and future state of things. Speirs offers his advise for how to conduct such discord at home.
“There are no debates within families, there are no debates within classrooms, there are only arguments. Debates only happen in an artificial situation,” he explained. “Listen four times more than you speak. If you go off of your initial impression of what someone means, you’ll either misinterpret their intensity or you’ll misinterpret their position. It’s so much more productive when we listen to each other rather than fight each other or badger each other.”
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