woody_zimmerman_118_2007Last week I wrote about the Obama-Romney debate, calling it the Rumble in Denver, as though it were a boxing match. I said Mr. Obama was knocked out early because he didn’t really answer the bell. My analysis was not exactly unique. Many writers and commentators used much the same imagery. Senator John McCain said if it had been a boxing match, the referee would have stopped the fight.

In the week following the Rumble, liberal politicians and pundits waxed apocalyptic about what Joe Biden would do to the “novice” Paul Ryan in the vice-presidential debate of October 11. It would be “payback” for the Rumble. Romney had lied and cheated, and good old Joe was gonna even the score, by golly. He’d tear Ryan limb from limb. It wouldn’t be pretty, no sir.

The vice-president did show up, loaded for bear, at the Thrill in the ‘Ville, in Danville, Kentucky. His opponent, Rep. Paul Ryan, was studious, earnest, polite and intelligent, as expected. He had full command of the facts for a serious discussion of domestic and foreign policy. But that didn’t really happen. If we were characterizing that “debate” as a boxing match, we might say one of the fighters traded occasional jabs with his opponent, but then would jump up and run around the ring, drop his pants, and moon the opponent, the referee and the crowd. It was certainly a show, but not a match.

Mr. Ryan did his best to treat the event as a real match, but Mr. Biden was having none of it. The challenger let the vice-president have his say, but when Mr. Ryan attempted to speak, Mr. Biden would make faces, grin, laugh (hysterically at times, it seemed) and interrupt what Mr. Ryan was saying – often so insistently that Mr. Ryan could not complete his thought or make his points. The referee, Martha Raddatz, did nothing to control the vice-president, who was irretrievably out of control. Instead, she often made her own interruptions and interrogations of Mr. Ryan – making it appear that he had two opponents, not one. It was rare for Mr. Ryan to be able to make clear statements of the Romney plans and policies without being interrupted at least once by either Mr. Biden or Ms. Raddatz.

As a debate the Thrill was… well, “gone,” as they say. It was a fiasco – not a serious policy event. But on reflection I concluded that this was Mr. Biden’s (and the Obama campaign’s) purpose, not an accident. They knew Mr. Ryan would bury the vice-president with an avalanche of facts and figures, so they decided to keep him from presenting any coherent arguments via clear, unbroken statements. When he wasn’t actually interrupting, Mr. Biden consistently mocked Mr. Ryan’s comments with his demeanor and background mugging.

Mr. Biden might have overplayed this, however, when he laughed out loud during Mr. Ryan’s comments on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Even reliably liberal Tom Brokaw blasted Biden, saying, “I just don’t think you should be laughing during a discussion about thermonuclear war with Iran. … It’s a very serious issue, and however amused you are, it’s about tone as well as content…

If any viewer came away from the event with clear ideas about anything Mr. Ryan said, then he’s a smarter guy than I am. In the history of political debates, this might come to be called the Biden Disruption Strategy. If its purpose was to muzzle Mr. Ryan, then it was very successful. I have heard supposedly serious political analysts say that Mr. Biden did a “better job” of getting his points across. Duhh! – Mr. Biden was the only one who got to speak a continuous thought for more than a few seconds. Calling it a “tie” – as some pundits insist on doing – is to treat it as a serious debate, which it was not.

By one count, the VP interrupted Mr. Ryan 82 times – about twice a minute. Others put the count higher by applying a different interruption-standard. I saw no tally of how many smirks, smiles, chuckles and guffaws came from Mr. Biden as Mr. Ryan tried to speak. Truly, I thought the VP looked unhinged – or possibly on drugs. An acquaintance said somebody was on stage wearing a Biden mask, like the surfer-crooks in the film Point Break. (Could that have been Big Bird in a Biden mask?) One blogger said (less elegantly) that the the vice-president “acted like a real horse’s ass.”

During the event I actually thought, “Is this the vice-president of the United States?” Then, more depressingly, I thought, “Is this an American?” I was embarrassed for him and for the country. No patriotic Democrat could have been proud of his performance.

The whole thing evoked long-ago memories of a junior high classmate trying futilely to make an announcement in the cafeteria at lunchtime. There was no way to quiet the students, and every so often a piece of food serving as a missile landed near or on the speaker. Only the food was missing from the Thrill event. (Providentially, no one let “Lunch-bucket Joe” bring an actual lunch bucket onto the set.)

I came away from the Biden-Ryan non-debate with much respect for Rep. Ryan’s unfailing calm and good humor. He refused to be drawn by Mr. Biden’s foolish antics. My own Irish/Welsh/Jewish temper would have gone off long before the event’s close. Red of face, I would have grabbed good old Joe by his tie, and told him to shut his mouth and let me speak. Of course that would have done me no good in the debate. Mr. Ryan – a truly disciplined Irishman as ever was – knew that already, which is why he’s where he is and why I’m here writing about it.

Pundit after pundit – including some who lean distinctly toward the Obama ticket – called the vice-president’s antics “rude, stupid, distracting, and unprecedented.” A few shared my personal view that he looked “unhinged.” (Really, I wondered if he might be ill.) Millions of Americans must have thought – at least fleetingly – “Is this the guy who’s just a heartbeat away from the world’s mightiest office?”

Thomas Jefferson once said slavery was “…like a fire-bell in the night [that] woke me and filled me with terror...” In our time, that fire-bell might be the possibility of a Joe Biden presidency. The faux-debate show allowed us to take the full measure of the man who wants to stand ready to take the reins if anything happens to Mr. Obama. On the night of October 11th, millions of Americans realized that this simply must not be allowed to happen. (Truly, the Lord does work in mysterious ways. He can even use TV.)

We can do better than this. We know we can.