If you haven’t yet checked out the 1971 Dick Cavett show debate between John Kerry and John O’Neill, you’re too late. C-Span no longer has it on their website and viewer services says they’re not airing it again.
Which is too bad. O’Neill, whom of course gets little respect in Douglas Brinkley’s telling in Tour of Duty, did a very good job debating the more curtain-ready Kerry. Only 25 at the time (Kerry himself was only 28), O’Neill went at the future presidential nominee like gangbusters. And scored a lot of points, the most important of which was that Kerry had elected himself spokesperson of veterans even as he slandered the American soldier and command in Vietnam as war criminals.
Kerry played defense most of the time, but missed few opportunities to turn the table on O’Neill whenever he tried to generalize about American veterans himself. Kerry also proved himself capable of real showstoppers. O’Neill correctly seized on the Vietnam Veterans Against the War’s Winter Soldier hearings to point out that these so-called witnesses to war crimes were refusing to submit themselves for depositions so that justice could be done if, indeed, war crimes had been committed. Kerry masterfully announced that he’d brought a winter soldier to the show with him that night who was prepared to give a deposition on live television right now. (How do you like them apples?)
Pure theater, sure, but good theater, and an early indicator of the grand confident gestures of which Kerry is capable. To his credit, O’Neill was little flapped ridiculous suggestion.
Watching the debate, you also have to be amazed by the poise of these two twentysomethings, who are on national television, fighting hard and long for about an hour total. This kind of programming is a thing of the past, which is too bad. Instead of light touches like Dick Cavett, we have, well, the usual cable-news head-banging, which is sometimes intelligent, but rarely graceful.
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