Reflections On The Political Debate

As we reflected on the recent Presidential and Vice Presidential televised debates and anticipate the next one this Sunday, my wife mentioned an Independent Lens program called Best of Enemies she found out about as she was flipping through the TV channels, stopping briefly on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). The link in the previous sentence will get you to the full length film only until November 3, 2016, although it will probably be re-broadcast periodically in the future. As the blurb says, the “Legendary nationally televised debates in 1968 between two great public intellectuals, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, defined a new era of public discourse in the media, the moment TV’s political ambition shifted from narrative to spectacle.” It goes on to say:

“In the summer of 1968, television news changed forever. That year, gunmen assassinated both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. The Democratic convention in Chicago flared up with protests and violence. Overseas, the Vietnam War raged on, and the streets at home roiled with race riots. With this tense political climate as a backdrop, Best of Enemies captures the legendary televised debates between ideological opposites Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr.

Dead last in the ratings, ABC hired Vidal and Buckley to debate each other during the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Buckley, who founded National Review magazine in 1955, was a leading light of the new conservative movement. Gore Vidal, lifelong Democrat and cousin to Jackie Onassis, was a leftist, taboo-smashing novelist and polemicist. Both believed each other’s political ideologies were dangerous for America. Like rounds in a heavyweight boxing bout, they pummeled each other with exchanges that devolved into personal attacks. These live and unscripted quarrels riveted viewers, and the television industry took notice.

Best of Enemies reveals the moment TV’s political ambition shifted from narrative to spectacle, forever altering the way the media — and Americans — talked about politics.”

I watched the film and was struck by the great similarity to the current debates being broadcast, meaning the lack of civility and, at it’s apex, the astonishing open hostility which eventually led to disastrous wounds to their souls and which may have provoked Buckley to say in his later years that he was tired of living on. The poem “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens aptly fits what ultimately happened to both men.

Of course, I was too young at the time to even watch the show, much less understand what was going on both in the real world and on TV. However, it should be obvious to everyone why this video is being aired now. The language in the current debates, while they are much less intellectualized, are hardly less hostile and this Sunday’s upcoming debate threatens to air ad hominem attacks which will echo the Vidal-Buckley war. For the debaters’ sake, I hope it doesn’t turn out that way.

Just before I went on vacation, I got on a soapbox myself and speechified to the residents and medical students about the parallels between the political debates and difficult conversations doctors can have with one another. This can become especially troubling between psychiatric consultants and consultees in the general hospital. In microcosm, physicians can argue about patient care, medical knowledge, and the rest of the core competency pizza:


In macrocosm, world wars, terrorism, and other conflicts can arise. But in my opinion the hub is the Interpersonal & Communication Skills competency. A psychiatric consultant needs to be able to clarify consultation questions and convey recommendations in a diplomatic, even statesman-like way. Some might say that’s just being political but I think many of us would tend to distinguish between a statesman and a politician. I couldn’t find out much on line about this other than gender discriminatory essays and over-simplified dictionary definitions.

I think it’s a lot like trying to define another competency, Professionalism. It’s difficult enough that some experts say it’s almost impossible. Statesmanship is more like an aspirational goal of most politicians, the vast majority of whom we criticize, lampoon, and deplore generally. Claiming that you’re not from the ranks of the polished politicians doesn’t seem to save you.

We might try to get around the challenge of defining Professionalism and Statesmanship by claiming they are much less about nuts and bolts detail management and gamesmanship and more about wisdom, meaning skill and experience in principle adherence, conflict management and consensus building. However, in the real world I suspect some gamesmanship is almost unavoidable where the regulatory landscape, systems complexities, and cultural nuances are often bewildering.

I recently noticed that the resident lecture schedule contained a talk called “How to Do a Consultation.” I’ve never seen a presentation titled that way. It made me wonder if I could even put one together using the over-used PowerPoint format to which most lectures are reduced. How would I “do a consult?” There are books and book chapters written about it which describe the nuts and bolts in lumper or splitter terms.

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dr-jim-amos-fireman-copyBut I’m unsure of my ability to boil the psychiatric consultation process down to a nuts and bolts approach distilled into PowerPoint slides. The best way to learn how to do a psychiatric consult might be to just ride along with the fire brigade consult service on any given day putting out fires around the hospital.

You could debate that–or argue about if you like. You could spend a long time, though, looking for a good role model for debating. I remember my one and only college debate while I was an undergraduate at Huston Tillotson College (now Huston Tillotson University), ruefully if I think about it too long. I still remember his name although I’m not going to mention it. The debate issue was whether or not capital punishment deters crime or something like that; it was way back in the mid-1970s. I lost miserably and it’s easy to say why without sounding like I’m making excuses–my opponent was simply too bombastic for me to get a word in edgewise, abetted by my trying to rebut every statement he made. This prompted good advice from one of my best teachers, Dr. Hector Grant, which was “Never be afraid to concede a point.”

Dr. Hector Grant
Dr. Hector Grant

Hillotson Tillotson news clip about Jim Amos 1976






habari-gani-coverhabari-gani-pg-dr-porter-sponsorThis also reminds me of another great teacher, Dr. Jenny Lind Porter. Sadly, her house, Casa Magni, is slated for demolition. However, I was pleasantly surprised to hear from the architect and Project Designer, who invited me to participate in putting together a remembrance of my former teacher in her honor in the neighborhood where in the next several months, ground-breaking will begin for the new house the style of which will echo that of Casa Magni, along with a micro library and other items.

I hope to include a pdf of one book which I’d been trying to track down for a while now. It’s a book of poems by Huston Tillotson College published in 1975 called “Habari Gani (what’s going on)” and which was sponsored by Dr. Porter. One of the archivists at HT was kind enough to help me get a pdf copy of it. There may be only two copies of the actual book extant, the other at the Austin Public Library. One of the poems probably bears on the debate vs argument distinction [1]. It was written by Charles Osby who, sadly, died about 3 years ago. Although small of physical stature, he had a great soul. May it be that something of his spirit burns in me.

Brother, Brother!

Why do you argue with me, my brother?

You say one thing and I say another.

I don’t wish to argue,

Not with you.

I want to share ideals and brotherly love,

I want to learn and benefit from your mind,

Your mind, like a light that burns on and on,

Constantly searching.

My brother, I do not wish to harm you–

You’re as much a man as I am.

I trust you,

We must trust one another.

Brother, Brother!

We must love one another–

A common bond,

Not to be broken by any force.

We must inspire our services to God,

See and understand,

And learn from what we experience.

That’s all that really matters–

That we benefit from what we have learned.

–Charles Osby


1.Habari Gani (what’s going on): a creative writing publication, 1975, Huston-Tillotson University Archives, Downs-Jones Library, Huston-Tillotson University, Austin, TX. (Charles Osby’s poem “Brother, Brother” reprinted by permission from HT Downs Jones Library Archivist).

2 thoughts on “Reflections On The Political Debate

  1. Jim,

    Excellent points.

    I think there are political debates with the usual ad hominem and gamesmanship (“You’re no Jack Kennedy!”) and there is political analysis. Unfortunately the American preference for the former has led to the current Presidential debacle. I recently pointed out that there were not even any third party candidates that seemed reasonable to vote for these days largely because of their extreme positions and included Green Party candidate Stein for her vague positions on vaccines. By vague I mean acknowledging their importance but trying to capitalize on the sentiments of those who are clearly against vaccines or at least mandated vaccinations for public health goals. Needless to say somebody jumped on me immediately to announce that I did not know what I was talking about.

    It reminded me of a consultation team seeing one of my inpatients for sarcoidosis. Somehow the fellow got wind of the fact I had ordered an MRI scan of the brain, approached me and (in as hostile a manner as you can get away with in a hospital) said: “We do not need an MRI of the brain for our evaluation!”. I could have quoted one of my favorite internists:”Just answer the consult question and get the hell away from my patient.” but I just said: “Well I need it.” I think that political debate easily enters science and medicine when the context is not all that clear. The scientific process resembles a political one but hopefully it depends a lot more on evidence and rational analysis.

    Even with that knowledge, I think there is always that right temporal tendency to polarize the people you are working with that needs to be actively countered. Just last night on my drive home I found myself thinking about the medical specialty with the least medical knowledge. Some may be surprised that it is not psychiatry. I rarely have contact with these folks these days, but I had to think that my biases are based on contact with only about 20-25 people and that is not a large enough sample.

    Also good to see that I still recognize Kiswahili when I see it.


    George Dawson, MD

    Liked by 1 person

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