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MSNBC: Chris Matthews bullies his way out of winning an easy debate with G. Gordon Liddy

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Posted on July 24 2009 11:43 pm
David Swindle is the Managing Editor of NewsReal Blog and the Associate Editor of FrontPage Magazine. Follow him on Twitter here
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I was about ready to change the channel last night during Chris Matthews’ Hardball when the former speechwriter to President Jimmy Carter pitched his upcoming segment: a confrontation between him and his “pal” G. Gordon Liddy. Apparently Liddy is one of the most high-profile members of the “Birther” movement, the kooky fringe of the Right that asserts President Barack Obama was actually born in Kenya and is thus not a legitimate Commander-In-Chief. (For my previous post on the Left’s obsession with using the Birthers to slander the Right, click here.)

I’ve always liked Liddy, the Watergate burglar-turned-conservative radio talk show host. From when he was first introduced to me by my high school economics teacher, I was intrigued. (How the TV-movie adaptation of Will, starring Robert Conrad as Liddy, fits in to be shown in high-school economics, I’ll never know.)  Even when I was a leftist and despised Liddy’s history and his politics, I couldn’t help but admire him for one principle reason: he was badass. Liddy in his style and history was continually a cool, defiant, aggressive figure. He was a fascinating, electrifying personality. Even if I didn’t agree with what he was saying, I’d like the way he said it.

So while I was disheartened that Liddy had bought into this wild conspiracy theory and was using his show and celebrity to promote it, I looked forward to the entertainment of seeing him argue in favor of it, Liddy-style.

Unfortunately, that’s not what followed.

Liddy was subdued and reserved. He made his points and arguments slowly and calmly.

Matthews was the opposite. He thundered about how clear it was that Obama was born in Hawaii and all the research that had been done to support it. He would confront Liddy with a fact or document. As Liddy would begin to respond Matthews would interrupt him and shoot out another question. Matthews also double-teamed Liddy, bringing on radio host E. Steven Collins to also make the anti-Birther case.

End result: even if you find Liddy’s Birther conspiracies absurd and borderline-offensive, you end up sympathizing with him because of how rudely he’s treated. Matthews overreached wildly during the debate. He was so offended by Liddy’s and the Birthers’ ideas, that he let his emotions come to dominate. He ended up becoming a bully – and rarely is a bully convincing.

Sometimes – though clearly not always — an effective way to triumph in intellectual combat is to hold back. If an idea is kooky – as the birther conspiracy is – then let it into the marketplace of ideas so it can be exposed and ultimately rejected. Matthews should have matched Liddy’s quiet tone. He should have had careful questions that forced Liddy to reveal his position. He should have treated him like the “pal” he claimed he was, instead of a political enemy to be wiped off the map.

Sometimes you don’t need to string up your intellectual opponents with interruptions and an angry style. All you need to do is give them the rope so that they can hang themselves as they reveal the absurdities of their position. Carefully maneuver your opponent so that they destroy themselves. In this fashion the moral high ground is maintained.

This lesson should be kept in mind as we engage other kooky ideas across the political spectrum. Sometimes it might be necessary to get rough, but frequently victory is possible merely by letting the ideas speak for themselves.

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Here’s the first ten minutes of that G. Gordon Liddy TV movie. It’s almost as ridiculous and amusing as Liddy’s birther conspiracies:

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