Watching and listening to the impeachment hearings for the past week has been a taxing process. A lot of talk from the podium and an unusually quiet Senate do not make for riveting theater, and the maximum I could manage in my viewing was only two hours a day. And that was when I was watching the people I agreed with!
As I listened to the speakers, I was carried back to my high school days and the memory of what Sister Lucilla taught me about public speaking and debate. A small Catholic high school in a little river town in the southern part of the state seems an unlikely place to produce a debate coach who taught me lifelong lessons, but that is, in fact, what happened. From the beginning of my freshman year, she trained us to see both sides of any question we were debating. By the time we were seniors, my three friends and I had honed our skills and formed a team that won the state debate championship.
Sister Lucilla was a young, intense Franciscan nun who coached the debate team at Cotter High School in Winona many decades ago. She also taught us Spanish and prepared some of us in declamation for speech tournaments. What did Sister Lucilla teach us about public exchange and debate that made me a severe critic of much of what I witnessed in the Senate this week? Well, listen up.
First, in those days every team in debate competition had to be able to argue either side of the question. That means, one had to understand what the arguments were on either side. You didn’t have to agree with any of it, but you had to understand. As we walked into the assigned debate room, we were handed the notice of the position we were to argue: either affirmative (we supported the proposition) or negative (we opposed it.). So we had to be prepared for either. We had to understand and respect both sides.
Next, and most important, every debate focused on facts and arguments, not opinions. White House lawyer Pat Cipollone used the word “ridiculous” at least four times that I counted in his opening statement. Sister Lucilla would have noted that the word “ridiculous” is neither a fact nor an argument. Likewise for the “danger, danger, danger” mantra that Trump’s lead outside counsel Jay Sekulow intoned enough to earn him some journalistic scorn: not a fact, not an argument.
Mr. Sekulow’s words remind me of an old lawyer’s advice to a newcomer in trial law: “If the facts are on your side, pound on the facts. If the law is on your side, pound on the law. If neither the facts nor the law is on your side, pound on the table!”
And what to make of Trump defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who seemed to admit the president was trying to pressure Ukraine into announcing an investigation into the Bidens? His tortured reasoning went this way: “Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest … and if a president did something that he believes will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” There was really no crime committed because the president thought it was OK to do it. Is this a new twist on Descartes’ realization “I think, therefore I am?” Or is it a variant on Louis XIV of France: “L’etat, c’est moi!” Sister Lucilla would no doubt say to Mr. Dershowitz that making up opinions and proposing them as rational arguments is not allowed in debate even if you are the president.
There’s another old legal dictum for the defense: “My client wasn’t even there. If he was there, he didn’t do it. If he did do it, he had a darn good reason for doing it.” Dershowitz has adopted this defense for the president. Apparently he believes the president had a darn good reason for making that threat on that phone call.
It’s instructive to recall that this same Mr. Dershowitz took another view altogether in the Clinton impeachment. “It certainly doesn’t have to be a crime. If you have somebody who completely corrupts the office of president and who abuses trust and who poses great danger to our liberty, you don’t need a technical crime,” he said at that time, arguing for the impeachment of the sitting president. What a difference a couple of decades make! Enough time to make a complete turnaround.
Sister Lucilla would have cheered U.S. House lead impeachment manager Adam Schiff’s closing remarks, in which he raised his opponents’ arguments, then one by one shot them down with rhetorical skill. “Now that is what debate is,” she would have said in her notes to the speaker. And she would have given the decision to the facts and the arguments, not the smoke and the mirrors.
Judith Koll Healey is a Minneapolis writer. She is at email@example.com.