Thanksgiving dinner was strange this year.
Paul was back from college with a lot of strong opinions, and he wanted to tell Uncle Joe about them.
Uncle Joe has long been known for his tendency to hold forth over the dessert course. He has a lot of bumper stickers, and he feels genuinely sorrowful for people who have to spend their time doing anything other than listening to him speak. When Paul drove to the university, Uncle Joe thoughtfully replaced his Rage Against the Machine CDs with audio of himself talking about nothing in particular. The strange thing was that Uncle Joe thought this was a wonderful gift.
Paul had prepared for this debate. He had brought home a lovingly collated set of his most impressive facts, many of them (his personal favorites) budget-related, as well as some General Truths that his friends assured him were going to be huge hits. He had acquired large muscles, mainly from lifting, then discarding, copies of “Atlas Shrugged.”
He settled at the table and waited for his turn to speak.
That was his first mistake.
Family friend Martha Raddatz sat patiently with the two of them as they picked over the cooling turkey, occasionally interjecting something helpful while the rest of the family made excuses and left, tired of Joe’s constant grinning and noise-making and of the fact that Paul, for all his excitement, was not offering as many specifics as they had hoped.
Paul had prepared carefully by doing a lot of reading, although early on during the foreign policy discussion he had the air of someone who was a little worried he would mispronounce something.
Uncle Joe was having none of it. He frowned. He grinned. He made sounds. If anyone picked Joe Biden’s grins as fodder for a drinking game, that person is now dead several times over, no matter how much health insurance he started out with.
Of course, Uncle Joe had some solid observations to make. But he kept shaking his head as if to say, “Those kids! Those kids and their crazy notions!” Sometimes before Ryan had even gotten a word out.
According to the official count, Paul Ryan spoke for 40:12 minutes, Joe Biden for 41:32 minutes — which sounds pretty equal, until you realize that 23 of Biden’s minutes were while Ryan was trying to say something.
“I would be fact-checking him,” people sighed, “but I couldn’t make out a thing he said.”
The trouble with this debate is that if you agreed with Joe Biden, you thought that he went barreling through, spewing truth and justice everywhere, fact-checking on the fly and laying out heaps of wisdom, even if his continual grinning was, frankly, uncanny and the head-shaking quickly got old. “Bottom line: When Biden spoke, my uterus glowed & went ‘THRUM THRUM.’ When Ryan talked, it ached & went ‘Zizzzzxxxthp,’ ” tweeted Rob Delaney. Your opinion of Biden’s debate performance was directly correlated to how much you enjoyed “The West Wing.”
If you liked what Biden was saying, you didn’t so much mind the way he said it. If you liked — or expected to like — Paul Ryan, you went off stewing and saying, “Now if that terrible bloviating twerp had just let Paul get a word in edgewise, we might have had a discussion. And they’re the ones who keep complaining about the lack of civility in politics!”
And the less said the better about those several minutes when Ryan and Biden spoke softly and gently to the electorate about abortion, a subject on which I have definitely not heard enough opinions from Catholic men.
The pie got cold. The rest of the family had long abandoned this in favor of the game.
And who knows what the proverbial undecideds think.
Possibly they decided the winner by keeping count of who blinked most, or whose striped tie seemed most reticent, or who said “Malarkey!” the most times. If there is any lesson from the broader electoral process, it is that we have no idea what undecideds think, ever. Also, the media assume you won the debate if you managed to yell over the moderator.
It was, after all, a strange Thanksgiving, in the best tradition of the holiday of relatives, stewing, aggressive pie-slicing and occasional baloney. At least Martha kept things going, pushed with follow-ups, kept everyone out of the potatoes and generally demonstrated what moderating was supposed to look like. At least there was plenty of turkey.