McCain adds debate coach

Many years ago, John and I were members of (and at times partners on) the Dartmouth debate team. In fact, we met while walking on the way to compete against each other in Dartmouth’s freshman inter-squad tournament. That may not sound like much of a tournament, but it featured something like half a dozen debaters who had competed at the high school national championship tourney a few months earlier, as well as several other debaters of similar calibre.
I mention this not just out of nostalgia, but because yesterday the McCain campaign added a college debate coach to its ranks. The coach is Brett O’Donnell of Liberty University. Political junkies will see this move as another step in McCain’s reconciliation with religious conservatives and, in particular, Jerry Falwell. McCain was at loggerheads with Falwell during the 2000 primary season, but the two have made up and McCain recently appeared at Liberty, the college Falwell founded and runs.
But inside politics aside, McCain may also be getting himself an asset in O’Donnell, who has made Liberty into a debate powerhouse. In fact, according to this story, his team has won 18 national championship in 17 years, a feat even John Wooden couldn’t match (I’m assuming that O’Donnell coaches multiple debate events or that there is more than one body awarding national championships). This Newsweek article about the Liberty team has Harvard debate coach Dallas Perkins (a debate rival of ours back in the day) saying that the Harvard isn’t afraid to debate Liberty.
O’Donnell also has political experience. He helped prepare President Bush for his debates in 2004. Now he will do the same, as well as other communications work, for McCain.
O’Donnell isn’t the first debate coach to become involved in politics. Bob Shrum coached the Boston College debate team when John and I were debating for Dartmouth. I recall the buzz on the debate circuit when we heard that Shrum was going to work for the John Lindsay campaign. Shrum was a great debate coach (and before that a great debater) but his taste in candidates was suspect from the beginning.

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