Kerry and O’Neill — then and now

I recently saw, courtesy of CSPAN, the 1971 debate between John Kerry and John O’Neill on the Dick Cavett show (I also saw the debate in 1971). Many of our readers have probably seen the old debate by now and I’d be interested in their impressions. I would also encourage those who haven’t seen it to do so, if they get the opportunity.
My impression is that John O’Neill did an admirable job, but Kerry had the better of it. First, as a fledgling media star, Kerry was more polished. Second, Kerry apparently had a bigger organization behind him and was probably aided by research support and big-time “handlers” (the extent to which Kerry was receiving help from a former Robert Kennedy speech writer was one of the issues debated — O’Neill got the better of that exchange). Finally, O’Neill was in the difficult position of trying to argue that President Nixon’s Vietnamization strategy was likely to succeed. We now know that it didn’t and, if memory serves, it seemed pretty clear by 1971 that it wouldn’t. On the other hand, we also know now that Kerry overreached during the debate by claiming that Nixon was going to pull out of Vietnam by the time of the 1972 election.
In the 33 years since the debate, O’Neill has gone on to become an outstanding trial lawyer. When you see him now, it’s just about impossible to recognize the young man who tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to derail Kerry in 1971. Kerry is still a good debater for a politician. But if they debated today on any subject, I’m pretty sure that O’Neill would crush Kerry. Come to think of it, he may be crushing him anyway.


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