Sunday, January 11, 2015

On the Experience of a Debate

Friday night I debated my friend Dr. Jerry Hendrix on the subject of aircraft carriers at the US Naval Academy.  The good folks (Claude Berube) at the Naval Academy Museum (you MUST visit--superb) convened the debate, and the good folks at the US Naval Institute (Mary Ripley, Pete Daly) handled the live-stream which is now cached as the Youtube file attached to this post.  I write today not to postmortem the substance of the debate--I leave that to your own judgements--but more properly to describe the experience.

Let's face it.  As a naval thinker and advocate, the opportunity to participate in the event Friday night was catnip.  I've written widely about aircraft carriers (here, here, here, here), and within the small and self-important group of people who think and write about such things, I am considered a strong supporter of the continuing role of the carrier.  My opponent in the debate--Jerry Hedrix--is a brilliant advocate of a very different view, and he and I have gone back and forth over carriers several times  across the interwebs and over the telephone.  In fact, he and I had been talking about an event just like what happened Friday night for three or four years, as we both believed a thorough airing of the issues would be worthwhile.  And we are both show-offs.

Needless to say, that while I had some level of knowledge and preparation simply by virtue of the work I've already done, the event demanded a significant amount of study.  This included re-reading everything Jerry has written and taking careful note of what he has said.  It included reading whatever I could find on what other carrier critics have said across decades of criticism.  It included reading the various defenses of the carrier that have been written by others.  It included reading publicly available studies that have already dealt with questions of the carrier's utility.  I began amassing information about a month ago, and began dedicated study on the day after Christmas.

The day before the debate, Jerry called me to tell me that a media figure wanted to interview the two of us on Friday morning (the morning of the debate), and to ask me if I were interested.  I declined, as I had formulated a carefully orchestrated plan for how the 15 hours before the 7:30PM debate were going to be spent.  Driving to DC for an interview was not among them.  It is this kind of inflexibility that drives the Kitten crazy.  It is this level of prioritization/focus that got me a spot in the debate.

The debate was structured thusly:  I began with an 8 minute opening, he followed with an 8 minute opening, each of us then had 4 minutes of rebuttal, then two minutes of quick hits each, then two minutes of closing each.  I prepared an opening statement and a closing statement, which I provided to a number of friends for their review and opinion during my preparation.  Their wise counsel made my words tighter, more straightforward.  About a week ago, I recorded both on my smartphone and listened to them over and over while driving to and fro.  I'd replace the file with a new one when revisions were made.

My goal when I do formal public speaking events is to craft a speech completely, read it a hundred times or so, and the read from the pages in front of me as a guide--usually the first sentence or phrase in each paragraph followed by eye contact with the audience to end sentences and paragraphs.  Watching the video two things are clear from my opener: 1) I didn't read the speech enough, as there were a few stumbles and 2) I made a lot of audience eye contact that rally doesn't show up that well on the video because of the high angle the camera was shooting from and my modest height--so when I looked at the folks in the audience, it still looked like I was looking down at my script.  I videotaped myself doing the speech here in the ManCave several times, making sure that I could get in all I wanted to say in 8 minutes.

Now, I had a lot to say.  The subject is not unknown to me, and Jerry's writing had created a rich source of material from which I could pre-emptively respond.  But the opener could only be 8 minutes long, and I had to make sure that I hit the big, important points in that 8 minutes, and rely on the remainder of the time to be able to get some of the other points I had loaded.

In addition to the prepared scripts for the opener and closer, I created a three column 8 pitch type cheat sheet of major points that I anticipated Jerry would make, along with short word/phrase bursts to job my memory on longer responses to each that I had written in my preparation.  This turned out to have been perhaps the most important time I spent in preparing, as there were a few times where he made points I was quite prepared for during the both the debate and the Q and A.

Prior to the actual debate it self, there was a reception held in the Naval Academy Museum, and truth be told, as I laid out my day, it stuck out as a sore thumb of discontinuity.  I was focusing like a laser beam on this task, and the thought of meandering around making idle chatter when all I really wanted to do was concentrate bothered me.  I told the Kitten that I bet Mitt didn't have to do any cocktail parties right before his debates.  But like many times in my life when I become metaphysically certain of something, I was wrong.  I attended the cocktail party because I felt I owed it to the sponsors, but in retrospect, it was a thoroughly positive experience.  First, because I had a lot of friends there, folks who agreed with me and offered their confidence in my abilities, and those who disagreed with me, but who wished me well anyway.  Second, it took my mind off the task at hand, which turned out to be important.  The one hour I spent in the superb Naval Academy Museum, listening to a fantastic woodwind quartet, chatting with friends and well-wishers....was time well spent--much better than sitting in a quiet room going over notes I had already gone over countless times.  Additionally, the one hour nap I grabbed earlier in the afternoon didn't hurt.
The note I propped up on the debate podium

The setting for the debate could not have been better.  Mahan Auditorium is a beautiful room, cozy, but ornate and beating with importance.  Lining the walls behind the balcony seats behind glass are a series of large, captured battle flags from the War of 1812.  I'm a bit of an emotional sod to begin with, but standing on that stage, looking at those flags, thinking about the men who earned them and the history I have inherited from them--well, it got me a little verklempt.  But there's no crying in debating, and so I sailored on.  Prior to the debate, I stowed my one (insufficient) bottle of water under the surface of the podium (note to self:  remember Marco Rubio)  and arranged my notes for ease of use.  I propped a brief note to myself against the front of the podium, a reminder to me of my tendencies to speak too quickly when nervous and to be a sarcastic and cynical jerk much of the rest of the time.  The Kitten asked me before the debate whether we could prop a few of these around the house as reminders.  She's such a kidder.

The rest of the story is contained in the video.  This is only the second formal debate I've ever done, and I can honestly say I performed a bit better than the first--which leads to the conclusion that one really has to do this a lot to get good at it.  Another conclusion I had was reinforced respect for anyone who does this on truly cosmic stages, like Presidential candidates.  In my little world, this was an important debate and there were people who were counting on me to give our side a good go.  But in the grand scheme, this was minor league compared to the issues and pressures that two Presidential candidates must face when they square off.  I have immense respect for those people.


Tubby said...

When I reply on your facebook page to a comment from one of your token liberal idiot friends, I type slowly (as I figure they don't read fast), and I have fun. 2 out of 3, not too bad.

"The Hammer" said...

CW with his near pathological desire for self-gratification and attention seeking contacted me and asked if I would critique his debate performance with his little Swabie friends at the Naval Academy. I told him that I knew nothing about defense/Navy issues and he replied "No prob, neither do I" (just kidding, CW is to the Navy what Hugh Hefner is to airbrushed tits).
So I reluctantly agreed, you know, as I have all this time on my hands running a small bidnez.

Anyway I have decided to listen and comment on the fly rather than go through the whole debate and write some bullshit about how it was great and oh yeah you were magnificent etc.

Here goes:
CW thinks carrier groups are flexible, adaptable and cost effective. They project power quickly and they're not really that expensive in the grand scheme of things. They have evolved well with new weapons systems and will continue to do so.
Mr. Hendrix' (so as not to be confused with Jimi will henceforth be addressed as Jerry) opening remarks set the debate asserting carriers are an old, tired technology, too expensive, too vulnerable and too politically damaging to risk due in part to American's loss tolerance. NY Times headline "5,000 dead sailors" doesn't look good I guess he's saying.
CW comes back with loads and loads of empathy. They're expensive "I get that", we're working on it. Ok CW, a little too empathetic, and the idea that the government is working on lowering costs rings hollow (to say the least). You argued that yes indeed they are expensive, but well worth it. Then you should have told Jerry that his remark about "impressing the locals" is part of the attributes of a carrier flotilla...INTIMIDATION! An old lawyer's saying is the law works best when it doesn't have to work at all, and it's much the same here. If a carrier groups shows up off your coast it might lead one to think twice before acting the fool. A Gary Hart slim and trim mini-Navy might not have the same effect.
And what's this obsolete BS? Have not ships themselves evolved over the centuries? Admiral Agrippa used them at Actium and we use them today. Is the ship obsolete? Of course not, it has evolved, as do carriers.
Halloween costumes for pets? Really CW? On top of being kind of an odd thing to say, it vaguely implies all money is govt. money. Whatever people spend on pets, pasta or poon that's their business and has no relevance in this discussion that I can see.

I can find no fault with the presentation or arguments of either participant. I simply don't have the requisite knowledge to make and assessment. However I would come down on the side of both. Jerry is making a fact based "bean counter's" argument, and I take his point. But I can just see this very debate (of sorts) going on in the House of Commons when the British Empire was going broke. Great nations crumple from within, and Jerry it seems is trying to manage the rot to our best advantage. The problem is not the Navy or this system or that, it's our political leadership both in terms of what we want to achieve strategically, our ability to meet our obligations and the implications to our defense establishment (among other priorities) of mismanaging our domestic economy.

I think you both did well. CW you were likable, knowledgable, made your points succinctly without a lot of bloviating, and defended your position without being hostile or condescending. I actually learned a lot.
You did not come off like a politician, which I guess is a good thing. You were like Wink Martindale, pleasant and inoffensive.

The Conservative Wahoo said...

Thanks Hammer, though we differ on one thing...where you say "vaguely implies all money is gov't money", I was implying (admittedly unclearly), that all money is OUR money, and that if WE can choose to spend our money on a thousand stupid things, we might as well think harder about spending it on something that matters. Cheers.

Frank Ch. Eigler said...

I'm glad that an audience member near the end asked a question that was bugging me the whole time --- that is the extent to which moving-target/CAS type missions could possibly be replaced by drones and/or cruise missiles -- ever. The presumptive faith in AI/robust-networks needs a lot more support.

Newer Post Older Post Home