Death cage debating arrives

By Michael H. O’Donnell

Watching the last Republican presidential debate in Texas, I couldn’t help but think back to a couple of tidbits of “The Jerry Springer Show” I’ve caught over the years or the hours of televised professional wrestling that assaulted my eyes as a youngster in the 1960s.

The only difference was Springer had bouncers and the American Wrestling Association had referees in the ring trying to keep the participants from engaging in low blows.

Viewers were not treated to this merciful intervention Thursday night.

Instead we had Donald “Haystack” Trump, “Cabana Boy” Rubio and Ted “The Canuck” Cruz bashing each over the head with folding chairs as Ben “Sleepy Doc” Carson and John “Not-Krazy” Kasich watching from the ropes.

Flexing the lifts in his shoes, Rubio hit Trump with a con-man label. With a patented smug uppercut, Cruz poked Trump about his tax returns and past donations to Democrats.

Trump fired back with a double chicken wing, calling Rubio a “choke artist” and Cruz “a liar.”

When the final bell sounded, Americans had to be left wondering if these guys are serious contenders for the highest office in the land or just cheap entertainment.

It’s an argument I had with neighbors of my grandparents in Upper Michigan when I was an impetuous teenager. Their house was right next to my grandparent’s home, sandwiched between the joys of my grandmother’s hugs and a tiny neighborhood store nestled in the basement of a house on the corner.

The little store had sprung up during the Great Depression and provided access to essentials like a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk when folks didn’t have gasoline money to drive into downtown Escanaba.

It was still operating in the 1960s because the people who started and owned it lived upstairs. There were two access points to this miniature market — one off the street in front and one in the alley.

It was a place of wonder when we visited our grandparents because the store also sold penny candy.

Of course if you had a quarter, the sky was the limit. There was such delicacies available as candy cigarettes — something most Idaho legislators probably regard as a “gateway drug.”

Once a kid gets the taste of wintergreen flavored sugar on his lips and quaffs a few root beers, he’s just a couple of birthdays away from refer madness and a case of Budweiser.

Not understanding the dangers of this introduction to sweet pleasure, a trip to the basement store for some candy and pop was an excursion into wonderland for me. If I took the alley from my grandparents’ home to the back entrance of the store, it invariably involved greetings from the couple living between the two.

They were in their 50s and loved to sit in the shade of a backyard tree on solid steel lawn furniture designed to withstand the impact of close-range pistol shots. The man and his wife were friendly and always said, “Hi.” If you stopped to talk to them, the conversation invariably led to their love of professional wrestling.

These folks were hard-core fans.

Trips to Milwaukee or Chicago to see costumed men hurl each other around the ring were like religious pilgrimages to Mecca.

And I could understand the appeal of watching guys like Gorgeous George, The Sheik, Mighty Igor and Dick the Bruiser tear into each other. It was great entertainment. And dirty tricks came with the show.

The Sheik was famous for reaching into his leotard and pulling out some kind of paralyzing camel dust that stunned his opponent. Chairs were slipped into the ring when the ref was looking the other way so The Crusher could smack Pepper Gomez in the skull.

The crowd went wild and my grandparents’ neighbors loved being in that crowd.

There was just one problem. These fans believed it was all real. Deep in their hearts they thought these paid athletes and entertainers really hated each other. To them, the fake blood and crippling blows were genuine.

Which brings me back to the GOP debate. There was a lot of entertainment there, but do folks really think Rubio, Trump or Cruz are serious about being president of the most powerful nation in the world?

Do we actually pick our leaders by their ability to poke someone in the eye or shout insults?

When Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated during their run for the U.S. Senate in 1858, they went at each other hard on the issue of slavery.

A lasting line from Lincoln was: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

Douglas said, “I would consider myself an infamous wretch, if I charge any man with being a party to a trick or a fraud.”

They’d be beaten to a pulp in this new era of death-cage debating. And you don’t need to smoke a candy cigarette to see the danger in that.

Michael H. O’Donnell is the assistant managing editor of the Idaho State Journal.