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Debate Prep Is Hard

Illustration by Sam Woolley

As a celebrity, he had a history of saying improper things, and he was in trouble following a leaked tape of himself at his most offensive. As a candidate, he never seemed to stick to a script, and he’d often contradict himself. And yet professionally unserious Kinky Friedman was running a serious campaign for Governor of Texas, and I was going to have to play him in debate prep with potentially millions of dollars and votes on the line. I was scared.

That Donald Trump is reportedly uninterested in participating in this kind of debate prep is not a good sign for a future president, but is also entirely understandable. Debate prep is a lot of fucking work.


A debate isn’t about outthinking your opponent or catching them up in some logical fallacy. Most debates are basically two (or more) rehearsed speeches interrupted by canned one-liners and weak put downs. It’s a show. Quaint notions of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas having some sort of quiet, reasoned discussion can be quickly extinguished by reading the actual debates and realizing that Douglas increasingly leaned on blatant race-baiting.

And it worked! Lincoln lost.

Debate prep is a rehearsal for the show. You recreate the debate setup as closely as possible and find people willing to play opponents, while the candidate drills the same questions over and over again, knowing that in the real event they’ll only encounter a fraction of them.


Successful debaters stick to their points and recite well-rehearsed lines, which is why Mike Pence sounded so good even if he was blatantly lying about what Trump did or did not say. Debate prep, then, is mostly about trying to pivot from whatever question you do get asked to existing talking points you’ve already repeated ad nauseam to reporters and crowds.

In fact, the vast majority of what gets said in a debate has been said before, which means that scoring a point is less about being quick on your feet and more about knowing the turf you’ll be standing on. The best zingers aren’t spontaneous so much as rehearsed.

The best of these, inarguably, is Senator Lloyd Bentsen slapping then-Senator Dan Quayle with his “You’re no Jack Kennedy” line. That was the result of good debate prep. Someone told Bentsen that Quayle was comparing himself to Kennedy in speeches and he allegedly said, “You mean he’s comparing himself to Jack Kennedy? I knew Jack Kennedy ...”


Like Lincoln, Bentsen also lost his election.

My challenge for my first-ever serious debate prep session was to try and be Kinky, a candidate whose stump speech was light on policy and heavy on jokes. His views on issues were simplistic at best and nonsense at worst. I had no idea what I was doing.


That as a 23-year-old with little professional political experience I was invited to rehearse for a potentially make-it-or-break-it debate is one of the least strange things about a gubernatorial election that only seems normal by the standards of our current presidential race.

The sitting governor, Rick Perry, was running for his first full term as governor, after he’d ascended from lieutenant governor to serve out the rest of George W. Bush’s term in 2001. Polling indicated that Perry was unpopular and a possible target for a moderate Democrat, thanks to the state’s Republican comptroller, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, who’d entered the race as an Independent and branded herself “One Tough Grandma.”


Except ... there was Kinky. If you don’t know who Kinky Friedman is, any attempt at a brief explanation is going to fall woefully short. Let’s just say he’s a country singer and writer of detective novels who fronted a fairly popular band called Kinky Friedman and The Texas Jewboys and sang songs like “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore.” I can’t explain, exactly, why he ran for governor, but his slogan was “Why The Hell Not?” and that seemed compelling enough to a lot of people disgusted with the two-party system.

As a young person and annoying idealist, I’d have probably been an ideal Kinky voter, but I knew some people on the campaign of one-term Houston congressman Chris Bell. I thought Bell was a smart and charming nerd who actually cared about policy, and I’d watched enough Aaron Sorkin to think that caring about policy actually mattered. (What truly mattered was that Chris Bell was rarely, if ever, that charming in public.)


Perry, recognizing that he wasn’t, perhaps, the most stellar debater, and finding himself in a position to just let everyone else fight it out, smartly agreed to only one debate. On a high school football Friday night. On the weekend of the Texas-Oklahoma game.

So Bell had one shot, a high-stakes debate against Governor Rick Perry, One Tough Grandma, and Kinky. The Bell campaign was chronically low on funds, and John O’Quinn, a successful trial lawyer, was dangling potentially millions of dollars in loans and contributions in front of Bell if he could show he had what it took to defeat Rick Perry.


In order to make it count, the campaign called in the big guns for a rehearsal at Austin’s AFL-CIO hall. Chris would play himself. State Representative Mark Strama, smarter than Perry but with the same B-movie star good looks, would play the governor. Monte Williams, former press secretary for Ann Richards and a bit of a legend, would be our Tough Grandma.

That left Kinky. For reasons I don’t fully understand, the campaign manager asked me if I’d be interested in sparring with all these professionals as Kinky. It was a huge leap from writing policy papers, and I was too dumbstruck to point out I had no idea how to do that. To make things even scarier for me, there was a crew filming us the entire time for a documentary they were making on Kinky. It didn’t take a genius to figure out they might use some footage of our ersatz Kinky.


In helping the campaign in a very low-end way with blog posts aimed at dissuading students from tossing their votes away, I’d studied what Kinky said and knew there wasn’t much there. His education plan was basically: We need better education. His immigration plan was: No more immigration. This made my job, and the job of the people pre-scripting the debate, much harder.

In the days before a mock debate, campaign staff typically puts together a full script for all of the fake moderators and candidates. This means that debate prep is less a free-flowing improv session and more a strange one-act play.


The only one who didn’t get a script was the candidate, and he had the hardest job of all. He had to sound more reasonable than Perry, less cranky than One Tough Grandma, and somehow also funnier and more relatable than Kinky.

The campaign didn’t have a lot of money and it didn’t have access to a TV set, so the staff did their best aligning the borrowed, mismatched podiums on the small stage of the union hall so that they’d mimic what the candidate would find.


Admittedly, the existence of a script is the only thing that kept me from barfing over everyone. I’d tried to memorize what Kinky said, but at least if my mind went blank I could just read the words off the script and wave the cigar I’d borrowed around until they kicked me out.

When the first debate practice round started, I felt a little better. It was less about imitation (as you can see in the video from Along Came Kinky, the documentary about the race, I do a fairly shitty Kinky impression) than about bringing the energy of an opponent along with the predictable lines so the candidate could properly react.

Debate prep, if done right, takes a while. They’d blocked out five hours for this rehearsal, and this was the second day of prep for Bell. It didn’t start great for the candidate, though, who seemed tired, sticking to his talking points but not doing much else. I just acted like a clown and, mostly, that seemed to work.


I’m not sure if it was pain medication from Bell’s recent emergency dental surgery, travel-induced exhaustion, or just that debates are usually scheduled for later in the campaign, but it was understandable to me that Bell was faltering. No one else in the room, though, was willing to let him get away with it.

The documentary crew managed to catch campaign manager Jason Stanford and communications director Heather Beckel (veteran of the ’92 Clinton campaign and the accompanying documentary, The War Room) attempting to give Bell a pep talk, which you can see in the video.


“Being you, being the guy, the funny, the sardonic, the smart,” Beckel advises, with Stanford agreeing. “The coolest, greatest guy. Because the truth is you are the most charming and funniest guy, I mean, of the four characters, you’re actually funnier than any of the others, you’re more statesmanlike, you’re more charming, you’re all of those things more.”

Was that true? I’m not sure, but it seemed to work. Bell was noticeably more energetic and even a little punchy the next time through.


I, on the other hand, was in even worse shape. While Bell was conferring with his staff, Rep. Strama, who was playing Perry, said he thought the script was wrong, and the question that Perry was going to ask Kinky (the debate format had a section where candidates ask each other questions) didn’t sound right to him.

Flustered, I remember asking, “Well, what’s the question then?” so I’d have time to prepare.


Strama, though, was a pro and either didn’t know I was in over my head or found it amusing so he just said that we’d wing it and figure it out.

I was nervous enough that I barely remember what happened next, other than I think Strama asked something about racism and I gave some sort of answer.


The next thing I distinctly remember is John O’Quinn, the trial lawyer with the big checkbook, cornering the candidate in an office a few hours later. He wanted to get Bell to have even more energy and kept pushing the candidate to ramp it up until Bell was literally yelling, “We’re last in education!” at the top of his lungs.

It was weird, but O’Quinn was right and people have done far worse for less money.


When the debate finally came around, I was anxious to see how Bell would do. I could barely contain my laughter when the first question was basically, “How can you be governor when you’re so damn boring?”

True to practice, Bell pivoted right towards his key message: We need to make education better.


Perry was better than you’d think Perry could be, given his recent performances. Strayhorn’s Tough Grandma act didn’t work at all, coming off more agitated than anything else.

And then there was Kinky. After Bell, I was selfishly most curious how Kinky would do. I was disappointed. Not only did he barely deliver any jokes, he barely delivered anything other than a mix of misleading statements and outright lies. Texas Monthly’s political columnist said “Kinky Friedman looked lost,” and, as we found out later thanks to the documentary, Kinky told his staff he delivered a “C” performance.


Bell was great, though, proving that preparing for a debate is not a bad thing even if debate prep itself is grueling. O’Quinn pledged a million dollars to the campaign on the spot.

Not like it mattered. Like Lincoln and Bentsen, Bell won a debate but lost the election.


You can rent or buy Along Came Kinky here. The film will also be screened for free at the LBJ Library on Thursday, October 27th followed by a discussion with the director and some of the people involved in the campaign.

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About the author

Matt Hardigree

Gawker Media's Executive Editor for Publishing Partnerships. Ex-Jalopnik EiC.