Jack Tame: It's only the top ticket that counts


Even for a politician, John Nance Garner was an unusually colourful chap.

When he ran for local office in a small Texan county, he faced just one other candidate. Given women still couldn't cast ballots, it seemed unlikely Garner's female foe would win a great deal of the vote. And yet John Nance Garner went one step further than simply notching a political victory over his opponent. He married her.

History records Garner as a character, a man who had some anecdotes. He ran an underground politicians' drinking club in the midst of prohibition, and took a birthday phone call from JFK just hours before Kennedy was shot dead.

Once, before Congress, a union leader described Garner as a "Labour-baiting, poker-playing, whiskey-drinking, evil old man". He lived to 98.

There's a simple reason many Kiwis will never have heard his name. John Nance Garner only made it to the second highest office on Earth. Only.

And though having served two terms as US vice president, John Nance Garner was not a fan of the job. He was also not a man for unnecessary eloquence as evidenced when he once said of the vice presidency of the United States, it's "not worth a warm bucket of piss".

Garner's frank assessment was under question this week as Veep candidates Joe Biden and Paul Ryan prepared for a primetime showdown in the US vice presidential debate. Though neither man could claim Garner's apparent flair for outspokenness, the debate promised a gritty fight. It was a one-off, we were reminded. Potentially the candidates' most important moment, the bridesmaids' only kiss.

Hosted in Danville, Kentucky, cable news began billing it like an Ali fight. Headlines announced "The thrill in the Ville" might just be "the most important VP debate in history". A week in advance, lead-in polls showed seesawing voter preferences, heightened drama and ever-increasing debate stakes.

From an early stage it was at least entertaining. Neither man withered and both seized on opportunities to attack their opponent. Biden was the aggressor of the two, particularly and sometimes unnaturally smiley, a 90-minute Colgate commercial waltzing the line between robustly rebutting and outwardly laughing in his youthful opponent's face.

Ryan was solid if uninspiring, clearly more comfortable discussing policy details than anything remotely personal. As an argument it was a good watch, but in the race for the White House, nothing much really changed.

"Voters are still pretty evenly split!" announced cable news in a flurry, amidst whirlwind graphics and second-by-second analysis. Another day in the race for the White House passed. The drama prolonged once more.

Three weeks from ballot day the vast majority of Americans have made up their minds. The vast majority have a political preference and, for the vast majority, preferences are unlikely to change. The November 6 election will simply be decided by whatever party mobilises its constituency. Whatever party gets bums off seats.

Which is to suggest, of course, for all the drama and build up, the discussions of abortion laws and religion, debates of new wars in the Middle East and analysis of Joe Biden's fluoride levels, in Danville, Kentucky, the two men deciding the US election weren't actually there.

Indeed, one could say the 2012 vice presidential debate wasn't worth a warm bucket of ... You get the idea.

- Herald on Sunday

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