Musings, ‘malarkey’ and other stuff from the Veep debate

October 14, 2012

The vice presidential candidates came to Kentucky for one of the most substantive debates in years — a clear, energetic argument over policy differences that left their bosses’ recent performance in the dust.

Here are some observations from Thursday night’s debate at Centre College in Danville between Vice President Joe Biden and his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Memorable malarkey

Political pundits love memorable debate lines, and they figured these two Irish Catholic candidates would not disappoint. Only minutes into the debate, Biden delivered the first of many colorful rebuttals to Ryan’s sometimes inaccurate characterizations of the Obama administration’s record.

“With all due respect, that’s a bunch of malarkey,” Biden said, using an old-fashioned Irish term for nonsense. “This is a bunch of stuff,” he continued, puzzling moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News, who asked what he meant.

“Well it means it’s simply inaccurate,” Biden explained.

“It’s Irish,” Ryan added.

“We Irish call it malarkey,” Biden continued.

Photo by Mark Cornelison

Biden seemed determined not to repeat Obama’s mistake of not aggressively challenging Romney’s characterizations of the nation’s problems, how they came about and how the administration has tried to address them.

When Ryan criticized the more than $800 billion in federal “stimulus” spending the Obama administration used early in its term to try to keep the Great Recession it inherited from becoming a depression, Biden made a spirited defense.

Republicans have claimed “stimulus” spending as a waste of money that created no jobs, although the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that it created between 1.4 million and 3.3 million jobs.

Biden then tried to make Ryan look like a hypocrite by noting that he had twice sought “stimulus” money for Wisconsin companies.

No pushover

Ryan, who at age 42 is 27 years younger than Biden, was poised and articulate. He calmly held his own for most of the debate.

Ryan was a much more convincing advocate for conservative economic policies than Romney, who in his first debate suddenly morphed from an arch-conservative trying to shore up his base to a moderate trying to win over undecided voters.

Ryan and Biden’s point-counterpoint arguments about Social Security, Medicare, tax policy and approaches to deficit reduction underscored the sharp differences between Republicans and Democrats on economic issues. It was as good a discussion by party standard-bearers as voters are likely to hear this fall.

Ryan had done his homework and spoke knowledgeably about foreign policy. But while he sharply criticized the Obama administration’s actions regarding Libya, Iran and Syria, he was unable to say specifically what a Romney administration would do differently.

That gave Biden an opening to portray Ryan and Romney’s criticisms as “bluster” and “loose talk”. He implied that their attitudes could be as dangerous as the Bush administration swagger that got America mired in long, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“The last thing we need now is another war,” Biden said.

No ‘civility’ pledge

For the record, both campaigns declined a request from Centre’s student government leaders to sign a new “civility pledge.” The pledge was a voluntary but popular student initiative last year intended to govern their own conduct.

The pledge says: “I promise to do my best, be my best, and respect the members and property of our Centre community.”

“They thought it was a good idea, but I think they were averse to setting a precedent,” said Patrick Cho, Centre’s student government president. “It was disappointing, but I understand why.”

Debate demeanor

Televised debates are as much about theatrical performance as substance. How a candidate presents himself is often more important than what he has to say. Most voters seem to want confident, empathetic leaders, not policy wonks.

Aggressiveness tends to be seen as a sign of strength, as long as it doesn’t go too far. Passivity is viewed a sign of weakness. But the line is thin and subjective.

Republicans complained after the debate that Biden was rude and condescending toward Ryan. But Democrats said the same thing about Romney’s demeanor toward Obama during their Oct. 3 debate in Denver. What do most undecided voters think? We will find out on election day.


Both VP candidates do well in debate, but the winner is Centre

October 12, 2012

DANVILLE — Vice President Joe Biden and his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, both gave solid, aggressive performances when they met Thursday night at Centre College for their only debate of the campaign.

So who won? Your opinion probably depends on which one you liked better before the 90-minute debate began.

Biden learned a lesson from President Barack Obama’s passive first debate two weeks ago with his challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Biden gave a forceful defense of the Obama administration’s record, while attacking Romney and Ryan’s “bluster and loose talk” on Middle East policy.

Photo by Mark Cornelison

While Obama didn’t bring up Romney’s controversial “47 percent” comment in his debate, Biden jumped on it repeatedly. He accused the Republican ticket of trying to marginalize people such as his parents, average people he grew up in Scranton, Pa., and even troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Ryan shot back, saying Romney’s words didn’t come out quite right — something Biden should know about, a reference to his reputation for verbal gaffes.

Biden avoided such gaffes in this debate, and he repeatedly pushed back against his serious, young opponent’s statements by laughing, shaking his head and constantly interrupting him.

Biden did what he needed to do in this debate: provide a forceful defense of the Obama administration’s record, policies and plans.

But Ryan also did what he needed to do: try to undermine that record and argue that he and Romney offer better solutions to the nation’s problems.

Moderator Martha Raddatz, a foreign policy specialist at ABC News, did an admirable job of trying to keep the debate on track. She tried to pin both candidates down when they evaded answers or hedged comments.

Biden’s strongest moments came when he accused Romney and Ryan of wanting to cut taxes for the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. And after Ryan criticized the Obama administration’s stimulus spending, Biden recalled how Ryan put in many requests to get some of that money for his Wisconsin district.

But Ryan made a strong case, too, arguing that Romney’s policies would promote more economic growth. Ryan’s closing statement was better than that of Biden, who grew more mellow and serious in the final minutes of the debate after Raddatz asked them to each discuss their Roman Catholic faith and how it influenced their views on abortion.

Whatever impact this debate has may not last beyond Tuesday, when Obama and Romney have their second debate in Hempstead, N.Y. They will take questions from “undecided” voters in a town-hall format. Their final debate is Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.

The longest-lasting win may be for Centre College and Danville, which showed for the second time in a dozen years how to host a vice presidential debate in style.


Can Biden’s Danville performance give Obama campaign a rebound?

October 7, 2012

Who could have guessed that President Barack Obama would suddenly be depending on Vice President Joe Biden’s communications skills to get his re-election campaign back on track? That’s right, the same Joe Biden who has an uncanny ability to say the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But that’s the way it is as Centre College in Danville plays host Thursday to Campaign 2012’s next big event: the only vice presidential debate between Biden and his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Centre was already feeling good about having been chosen to host the veep debate for the second time in a dozen years. Now, thanks to Obama’s feeble performance last Wednesday in his first debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney, even more attention will be focused on Danville.

“The interest and the contacts have really picked up in the past few days,” said Centre spokesman Michael Strysick.

More than 3,200 media credentials have been issued for the debate, including 600 to international journalists and broadcast technicians from 40 countries.

Credentialing closed a couple of weeks ago, but interest was already strong because of Ryan’s selection for the GOP ticket. It raised hopes that this would be more than the usual vice presidential debate — a sparring match between two people whose election is of no real consequence unless something happens to the president.

When Biden faced off four years ago in St. Louis against Sarah Palin, much of the anticipation focused on whether she would be able to convey a coherent thought.

But Ryan is the anti-Palin: smart and articulate, with a strong command of policy and data. He is one of conservatism’s rising intellectuals. Among many GOP faithful, especially Tea Party types, Ryan is more popular and respected than Romney.

During 14 years in the House, Ryan has become a leader in developing and proposing conservative fiscal policies. He is most famous for his draconian budget plan that would cut $5 trillion in government spending over a decade.

While Biden is an experienced legislator who campaigns with a man-of-the-people folksiness, he has never been considered a thought leader. House Speaker John Boehner predicted this summer that the Ryan-Biden debate could be “the greatest show on the planet.”

“With these two on the same stage,” Village Voice political blogger John Surico wrote last week, “we have a situation that is akin to a Thanksgiving Dinner where the dorky cousin is trying to outsmart the drunken uncle.”

But if Biden can avoid his gift of gaffe, he has a chance do well on Centre’s stage. That is because televised debates are more about performance than policy. They favor showmen over wonks, which is a big reason that Romney came off looking so much better than Obama did last Wednesday night.

Obama didn’t make mistakes; he just missed opportunities. He rambled while Romney was crisp. He was passive while Romney was assertive. Romney’s sudden shift from right-wing rhetoric to moderate reason seemed to throw Obama off balance. Romney looked straight into the camera when he spoke; Obama’s eyes were too often focused elsewhere.

The single vice presidential debate is particularly well-suited for sharp elbows. The debaters often can get away with saying meaner things than the top guys on the ticket. Both Ryan and Biden are likely to spend more time going after the presidential candidate who isn’t there than the guy across the stage.

Debates tend to favor challengers, because incumbents have a record to defend. But, in this case, Biden has an opportunity to make hay by attacking Ryan’s radical proposals for reshaping the federal budget and Medicare.

Ryan is coming to Danville to attack the Obama administration’s record, but also to try to sell his and Romney’s ideas.

Biden’s challenge will be to defend the administration’s record and explain why Romney and Ryan are wrong. He must show more passion and energy than Obama did last week. But here’s the question: Can Biden go on the offensive without being offensive?

Kentucky’s moment in the campaign spotlight should be a good show.


Centre students will ask VP candidates to sign their ‘civility pledge’

September 12, 2012

Centre College students David Miller, left, president of Centre Young Democrats; Patrick Cho, president of the Student Government Association; Ben Boone, president of the student Senate; and Luke Wetton, president of Centre Young Republicans, showed off a “civility pledge” that classmates have signed. Photo by Tom Eblen

DANVILLE — David Miller is president of Centre College Young Democrats. Luke Wetton is president of Centre Young Republicans. They have different political philosophies, and they have debated each in the campus theater.

But they also are good friends. They eat lunch with the same group of students almost every day, and they hang out together most Friday and Saturday nights.

“We talk politics all the time, but with the understanding that disagreeing with the other’s political viewpoints is not a personal attack,” said Miller, 21, a senior from Orlando, Fla.

“The reason David and I have a good relationship is that we’re in an environment where we can relate to each other and realize we’re not that different,” said Wetton, 20, a junior from Russellville.

One thing they do agree on is the “civility pledge” that Centre’s Student Government Association created last year. It is a simple statement that covers a lot of ground: “I promise to do my best, be my best, and respect the members and property of our Centre community.”

Virtually all of Centre College’s 1,300 students have signed the pledge voluntarily, said Patrick Cho, the student government president. When Democratic Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee, come to Centre’s campus Oct. 11 for their only face-to-face debate before the election, students will ask them to sign it, too.

“If there are two people who are really going to get into it a battle of words and wits onstage, I think Paul Ryan and Joe Biden are the people to do it, and to do it well,” Miller said. “But I don’t think either of them are going to have a problem remaining civil and not insulting one another. They know what’s expected of them.”

Cho said the pledge grew out of conversations among Student Government Association members about the kind of campus culture they wanted to encourage.

The wording was borrowed from an admonition students often hear from Centre President John Roush: “Do your best, be your best, no regrets.”

Students have rallied around the pledge because, unlike most college honor codes, the idea came from students rather than administrators or faculty, said Ben Boone, 22, a senior from Nicholasville and president of the student Senate.

“There’s something very real and tangible about one student saying to another, ‘We can have political disagreements, but there’s no reason why you have to call me an idiot and I have to call you a liar,'” Miller said.

Cho said he wasn’t aware of any students who have declined to sign the pledge. In fact, he said, a popular fashion accessory on campus is a yellow wrist band that says, “Be Your Best. No Regrets.”

The debate — Centre’s second, after hosting the 2000 vice presidential debate between Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney — has increased students’ interest in politics. Both the Democrat and Republican student organizations have seen membership soar. Cho said student government is leading a voter-registration drive.

“One of the things our generation gets accused of is being politically apathetic, but I don’t think that’s true,” Cho said.

But the young people said they are turned off by the hyper-partisan, money-influenced demagoguery and no-compromise attitudes prevalent in politics today. “People are yearning for something different,” Cho said.

Miller and Wetton said they think the biggest problem with the baby boomers who run the country is that, unlike their predecessors, they don’t have personal relationships with their political opponents.

“Previously, there seemed to be more understanding that politicians were elected to work together,” Miller said. “Not to stand on opposite sides of the chamber and shout each other down. That’s not a way to get anything done.”

What advice would these Centre students give their elders?

“Calm down, share a meal together,” Miller said. “Because we’re in Kentucky, have some bourbon together. Having a good relationship outside of work helps.”

Wetton encouraged political leaders to think about their legacy.

“If these people thought about that very carefully, they would realize that there is more value in being able to say we came together and sometimes agreed to disagree, but we made progress,” he said. “That’s better than always sticking to your guns and putting the country at risk.”


In the hot-glass studio with Stephen Rolfe Powell

October 17, 2010

DANVILLE — Stephen Rolfe Powell prepares to create art the way the former semi-pro tennis player used to get ready for a match: push-ups, sit-ups and a lot of stretching.

Powell does his quick workout on the floor of an empty classroom near his Centre College studio, where a furnace is heating clear glass to more than 2,000 degrees. His four-person crew arranges tools and gets ready for action.

Powell is soon skillfully wielding a hollow steel rod, gathering more and more glass from the furnace and rolling it smooth on a stainless-steel table. When the glob on the end of Powell’s rod weighs nearly 30 pounds, he carefully rolls it over a heated mosaic of more than 2,000 bits of colored glass that will determine the finished piece’s pattern and texture.

The pace quickens as Powell and his team add just the right amounts of fire, air and motion to manipulate the glass. By the end of this increasingly frantic dance, they will have created a graceful vessel with two squiggly necks that is a symphony of light and color.

“For me, the making of the work is more important than the end,” Powell said. “If I couldn’t go in the studio and make work, I’d be a basket case. It’s a drug for me. When I’m in that process and things are going, especially at the end, I’m aware of nothing else.”

The finished vessel, which might sell for $25,000 or more, is the kind of work that has earned Powell an international reputation as a glass artist. This year, it also earned him the Artist Award as part of the Governor’s Awards in the Arts. He will accept the prize Oct. 28 at a ceremony at the state Capitol with his wife, Shelly, and their two sons, Hawk, 11, and Oliver, 9, by his side.

“I sort of feel humbled by it,” Powell said, “When someone says, ‘What do you do?’ I rarely say I’m an artist. I say I work with glass. There’s no question winning this award gives some kind of legitimacy to what I do.”

The award caps a big year for Powell, 58. The Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga recently presented a major retrospective of his work. Several of his pieces were shown in The Alltech Experience pavilion at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Powell, who is on partial sabbatical from his job as an art professor at Centre, recently bought the old Coca-Cola plant in Danville and is converting its 23,000 square feet into artistic work space.

When singer Tony Bennett performed at Centre’s Norton Center for the Arts earlier this month, he spent some time creating glass art with Powell. Bennett, an accomplished painter, also worked with Powell the last time he sang in Danville.

Powell said his success sometimes seems surreal because it wasn’t until age 28 that he even discovered hot glass.

As a student at Centre, Powell studied painting. After graduation in 1974, he returned to his hometown, Birmingham, Ala., to coach and play tennis and paint. “I got this studio in an old office building and kept waiting for somebody to discover me, but it never happened,” he said, laughing.

Powell taught art at his old high school and an Alabama state prison. Then came graduate school at Louisiana State University, where he was attracted to ceramics because it allowed him to do new things with color and light.

Then he discovered glass.

“I fell in love with it immediately,” he said. “I like fire and excitement and spontaneity and I have an athletic background. So glass was just it.”

Powell returned to Centre to teach in 1983 and created a hot glass studio with local corporate help. “It turns out this is a glass mecca,” he said. “Corning, General Electric, Phillips — they all have plants in this area.”

Powell’s father was a teacher, and he surprised himself by becoming one, too. “I don’t know why teaching is so satisfying and such a strong part of what I do, but it really is,” he said.

Powell said most of the Centre students who take his glass classes don’t plan artistic careers. Even among the art majors, only one or two each year will focus on glass. Still, several have risen to the top of their craft.

Two former students now run university glass programs: Ché Rhodes at the University of Louisville and Lexington native Patrick Martin at Emporia State University in Kansas. Two others are rising professionals: D.H. McNabb of Seattle and Brook White, who started Flame Run studio in Louisville.

Powell’s current crew, except for business manager Mitzi Elliott, are former students. “I really depend on that crew,” he said. “What I do is a real team effort.”

Powell said Centre’s support also has been critical to his success. “I just can’t imagine I would have had the same experience at another college,” he said.

One example: Centre awarded an honorary doctorate in 2004 to Powell’s mentor, Lino Tagliapietra, a Venetian glass master who never attended college. “When I said he’s the best in the world, they trusted me,” Powell said. “That meant a lot.”

Powell has focused his artistic expression on creating vessels because it is a form everyone can relate to. But he tries to keep experimenting with shape, color, pattern and effect. His vessels often have sensuous shapes, and he gives them wacky three-word names, such as Autumn Jealous Cleavage and Bombastic Moxie Gulp.

Now that he has more work space in the old Coca-Cola plant, Powell is interested in experimenting with large installation pieces. He recently completed one for the newly expanded and renovated Boyle County Public Library: 365 colored glass globes hung from the ceiling with aircraft cable.

What does Powell want people to take away from his art?

“I hope my work makes you step back and take a breath and pull away from the rest of the world and just have a moment of pleasure,” he said. “That’s about all I can come up with.”

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:

Italian glass master returns again to Kentucky

November 16, 2008

DANVILLE — It’s a long way from the Italian island of Murano — the center of Venetian glassblowing for 1,000 years — to the converted railroad shed beside the tracks at the edge of Centre College’s campus.

But that shed has been producing some fine art glass for two decades — and especially for the past week.

That’s because this month, Lino Tagliapietra, one of the world’s greatest glassblowers, is making his fourth trip to Danville to pass along six decades of expertise to art students at Centre.

If you want to watch, he will have public demonstrations Monday and Tuesday.

It was cold and rainy outside last Tuesday, but it was toasty in the glass studio of Centre’s Jones Visual Arts Center — better known as the Art Barn. The glass furnaces were glowing 2,200-degree orange as students watched Tagliapietra turn rods of colored glass into intricately patterned vessels.

With a calm demeanor and a deft touch, the 74-year-old master made a blob of molten glass almost dance at the end of his hollow steel rod. The glass was blown, rolled, pinched, twisted and snipped as Tagliapietra padded around the studio in Venetian slippers. All the while, he and his assistants kept the glass pliable with quick dips into the furnace or a skillfully applied blowtorch.

“Glass is an all-natural material … fire, sand and water combined together,” Tagliapietra said during an interview between classes. “I feel it is a very big medium. I think it is probably one of the most beautiful mediums in our life.”

Tagliapietra was born on Murano, near Venice, and apprenticed to a famous glass studio when he was 11. By 21, he had achieved the rank of maestro. He worked as a master glassblower and designer for some of Italy’s best studios. But he wanted more.

In the 1960s, he began adding his own concepts to the centuries-old methods of Venetian glassmaking. By the 1970s, he was collaborating with other artists, creating techniques, patterns and designs, and passing his knowledge on to students around the world.

One of them was Stephen Rolfe Powell, a 1974 Centre alum who discovered hot glass as a graduate student in ceramics. Powell returned to Centre to teach in 1983 and built the hot-glass studio two years later with help from Corning Glass in Harrodsburg and Philips Lighting in Danville. Powell has since become one of Kentucky’s most-honored teachers — and artists. His large, colorful glass vessels have earned him an international reputation.

Tagliapietra and Powell became close friends, and they have worked together all over the world. Powell persuaded the master to visit Danville for the first time in 2000 by promising to take him to the Kentucky Derby. “I pulled out every stop I knew to get good seats,” Powell said.

Tagliapietra returned to Centre in 2004, when he received an honorary degree along with then-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. “He started working in a factory at 11 and never studied, never got his degrees,” Powell said. “So him getting the doctoral degree was really cool. It was a pretty touching moment.”

The master returned to Danville in 2006, and he is spending nine days here this month. Powell planned Saturday to take him to his first American football game: Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt.

“I feel very grateful to Centre College,” Tagliapietra said. “For me it is very important to come back here to spend time with Stephen and the kids. I respect Stephen as a teacher and a man. I feel he is a true gentleman.”

Sitting on temporary bleachers in the small studio, Centre students watched closely as Tagliapietra and his assistants worked. A few advanced students helped here and there.

“I don’t think I could have imagined when I came to Centre that the best glassblower in the world would be here,” said Michael Garton, a junior art major from Louisville, who took careful notes.

Garton is primarily a painter, but he’s attracted to hot glass. “There’s so much you can do with color and transparency that you can’t do with any other medium,” he said. What is he learning by watching the master? “Mostly that there’s a long way to go,” he said, smiling.

Tagliapietra lives on Murano but works at a studio near Seattle for three months each year. He has a dozen assistants there — each an accomplished artist in his or her own right.

One of the four assistants who accompanied him to Danville was 2002 Centre graduate D.H. McNabb, 28. He met Tagliapietra during his first visit here. Working for the master for the past five years has been “absolutely amazing,” McNabb said.

“Lino understands the history of where he came from … all of the tradition of glass,” McNabb said. “Then he came over here and was able to see the innovative approach of the Americans … and that opened him up to more exploration. That stopped him from being restrained by his techniques and helped him to invent new ones.”

When Tagliapietra is working in Seattle, he goes at it hard, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day. “It’s hard work, but a lot of love,” McNabb said. “I’m just in awe of him.”

After 63 years of glassblowing, Tagliapietra said he is still learning, experimenting and growing as an artist.

“Every time I do one piece, or one series, I try to test myself,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you did yesterday. It’s important what you do today and tomorrow.”

If you go

Lino Tagliapietra glass-blowing demonstrations

The master artist will blow glass at Centre College’s Jones Visual Arts Center on Beatty Avenue in Danville at the following times: 8-11 a.m. and noon-3 p.m. Nov. 17 and 8 a.m.-noon Nov. 18.

The observation gallery is small, so space is limited.

For more information, and to see examples of Tagliapietra’s work, go to For more info about Centre’s glass program, go to

Here’s a piece Lino Tagliapietra made last Tuesday morning, from start to finish. Click on each photo to enlarge it: