By Charles Layton
If Committeewoman Mary Beth Jahn is the only contender to show up at this month’s Home Owners Association candidates forum (go here for some background), it might continue a grand tradition in American politics.
I’m talking about the “empty chair debate.” It’s been too long since I witnessed one of these. I love them.
While the empty chair debate comes in many variations, its basic form is for a candidate to appear alone on stage alongside a simple, unoccupied chair. The chair, of course, serves to emphasize that the absent opponent was too timid to show up.
Back when I covered election campaigns in the South, the empty chair was part of the political toolkit. But when I moved to Philadelphia I quickly learned that the politicos of that city had turned it into an art form.
Frank Rizzo, Philadelphia’s legendary mayor, avoided debating whenever he could. So Rizzo’s opponents staged empty chair debates to try to shame him. (They never really did. The flamboyant Rizzo didn’t shame easily.)
In Rizzo’s last campaign, in 1987, when he refused to debate his primary opponent John Egan, Egan held a debate with a life-sized cardboard cutout of Rizzo. He turned it into a nice little comedy routine, and the local media ate it up, but it didn’t compare to an earlier event, staged in 1975 by another Rizzo opponent. That opponent, Louis Hill, debated a live chicken. He set up twin podiums in the courtyard of City Hall, with himself at one podium and the chicken at the other. It was a quintessentially American moment, like something out of Mark Twain.
On one of those occasions — or maybe it was some third occasion, I can’t exactly recall — someone asked Rizzo what he’d thought of his opponent’s empty chair performance. “He debated a chair,” Rizzo is said to have snarled, “and the chair won.”
Empty chair debates still go on all around the country. Just Google “empty chair debate” and you’ll find them.
A story I read today online described one that Sen. Harry Reid was preparing to stage in Nevada during his 2010 race. His opponent was a woman who campaigned by making quick dashes from car to plane, refusing to take questions.
The article began by describing disagreements among members of Reid’s staff over what kind of chair to use in the mock debate. A common metal folding chair was rejected as seeming too cold and disrespectful, they reportedly decided, while a chair with a cushion, they feared, might imply hemorrhoids. On and on the strategizing went, more outlandish with each sentence. The story ended by saying: “Senator Harry Reid plans to wear a top hat, black tie and tails, dance on stage with a Bob Fosse slide, bouncing his cane from hand to hand, and answer every question.”
It was at that moment that I realized I’d been had. Then I noticed the name of the website I was reading: thespoof.com.
My only excuse for being so gullible is that, in the real-life political world, I’ve seen things just about that crazy.
When I was working in Louisiana, a candidate for local office planted a bomb under his own front porch, thinking to blame it on his opponent. The bomb turned out to be a bit more powerful than the candidate had planned. It nearly took down the whole front half of his house. But that’s another story. Nothing to do with chairs.