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John Donvan On The Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates

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HH: I must say, if you like this show, you are going to love a relatively new offering from my friends at NPR, and I say that as a veteran of PBS for ten years. Yes, I know they’re left of center, but not always. And they have a brand new program podcast called Intelligence Squared, debates which are truly Oxford-style debates, and their moderator is veteran ABC News correspondent, John Donvan, one of the good guys. John Donvan, welcome, it’s great to have you on the program.

JD: Hi, how are you, Hugh. I just want to correct you, that as strange as it seems, there is no O in the middle of my name.

HH: Oh, did I say John Donovan?

JD: You said John Donovan. It’s actually John Donvan, and it’s plagues me all my life.

HH: Oh, you know, I’ve got you, I’m looking at you on the Intelligence Squared debates thing, and you look like you should have an O in the middle of your name. But nevertheless, welcome. And congratulations, I want to congratulate you for saying, whoever came to you with Intelligence Squared debates, that you would throw in, the next one’s coming up on August 9th in Aspen. The proposition is the U.S. has no dog in the fight in Syria, and you’ve got two for and two against. And you’re the moderator of these, John Donvan. Tell people how you got into this and what the objective is.

JD: Well, the objective is quite seriously to, and we really mean it sincerely, to restore the level of public discourse to a point where people can actually hear each other. And that is not at all saying that we’re looking for some mushy middle of a great Kumbaya moment where everybody understands and agrees with each other. It’s more that we want to have people who hold differing views have to be good enough in explaining those views to get on a stage and do combat with rules. And it’s our feeling that when that happens, the two sides have to be very, very good at what they do, and they have to be able to explain themselves very well. So we started this back in 2006. We were started by a guy named Bob Rosencrans. This is his philanthropic activity, launching Intelligence Squared U.S. We’ve done something like 70 debates since them, originally only in New York City once a month, but now we travel around the country. And as you mentioned, we’re in Aspen tomorrow night as part of the Aspen Strategy Group annual meeting. And we take on topics that range from foreign policy to culture to matters of faith and religion. But our rule in all of this, our motto is think twice, the point being it’s a little bit of a play on the notion that there are actually two points of view on the stage. And why you can see that, you know, that exists to some degree kind of out in cable TV land, and CNN’s old Crossfire show. I think what’s different about what we’re doing is we really, the fact that we have rules, that the contestants have limited time to make opening statements, and then they have limited time in the middle to rebut one another, and I am a very, very interventionist moderator, not to get my own points of view into the debate, because I scrupulously keep them out. But I am very, very strict about keeping these guys actually debating with each other, actually responding to the points that each has made. You know, it’s sort of a typical thing when somebody, when your opponent lands a punch on you, you see it in politics all the time, and then you turn to see what the response is going to be. It’s often, you know, the tactic to try to change the subject. As moderator, I stop the debate right there, and I say in front of the audience, I’m sorry, sir, I’m sorry, ma’am, we would actually all like to hear what your response is to that point. Can you take it on? And what’s happened over the course of a number of debates, we have a lot of regulars who come to our debates as audience members, and they get to vote in the debate, and kind of choose the winner. They really hold the debaters to this notion that they have to really, really be persuasive. They actually have to make a good case. And the really great thing about these things is that we, I do a little talk with the audience ahead of time, and I say listen, this is what these debaters are here, and what they’re going to try to do. They’re really going to try to bring a new level of intelligence, really, of fact and logic, also and humor and anecdote can play into it, too, but they’re really going to try to do something that you don’t get to see the rest of the time.

HH: Yeah.

JD: They’re going to try to persuade you. And they’re going to try to do it in front of somebody who’s trying to persuade you to the opposite point of view.

HH: Now John, I’ve got to ask, because I’m going to do one of these with you in September with Michael Lind and Gray Davis representing the case for the blue states, and Steven Moore and I for the red states.

JD: And we are delighted to have you.

HH: I’m just curious, if I bring along like a fine bottle of wine and cigars and leave that for you in your hotel room, does that help?

JD: It’s not going to help you get me. If you bring a bottle for each member of the audience…

HH: No, that won’t work.

JD: That would work.

HH: That’s too much, too much. Now I am fascinated by this, because the guest who has been on this program the most over 14 years has been Mark Steyn, number two, Christopher Hitchens, and the number one debate has been Erwin Chemerinsky and John Eastman, the Smart Guys, Erwin from the left, John from the right. People love this.

JD: Yeah.

HH: And this is gone from America, so I salute the reinvigoration of it. It’s very hard to move on schedule. Can I keep you a couple of extra seconds here, John?

JD: Oh, sure.

— – – – –

HH: I’ve actually done the Oxford Union, and I understand what he’s up to here, and he’s doing it quite well for many, many years. The next debate on August 9th concerns Syria. And the participants in it are Richard Falkenrath and Graham Allison representing the proposition that the U.S. has no dog in the fight in Syria. Opposing that, R. Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of State for political affairs in W.’s administration, and Sr. Nigel Sheinwald, who I do not know, former British ambassador to the United States. And this is occurring in front of a select audience of smart people. And so do the rundown for them, John. How does it actually unfold?

JD: The evening begins, and I say to everybody in the audience, okay, ladies and gentlemen, you’re about to hear a debate between these two teams on this motion the U.S. has no dog in the fight in Syria. Right now, as you come in off the street, which side are you on? And we put keypads at everybody’s seat with three buttons on it. One is I agree with the motion, one is I disagree with the motion, and the third is I don’t know. At the end of the debate, then the debaters have formal statements, six minutes each, four guys go up and they speak for six minutes. The debating teams kind of share the topic. They find a way to divide up the argument between them. They make preemptive remarks against their opponents. They build in some preemptive rebuttal, that kind of thing. Then we go to the second round, and in the second round, it’s more free-wheeling. I ask questions of them, they answer the questions, but they debate during the answers. The audience asks questions, and they debate while answering those questions. Then we wrap it up with two minutes of closing statements from each of them in turn. After that, the audience votes a second time. And in the second vote, we ask them the very same question again. After hearing these arguments, where do you stand on this motion? And the way we do it is we choose as the winner under our rule the team who has gained the most percentage points. So you know, you can, and the reason we do that, for example, we do a lot of debates in New York City. For the most part, we assume, if we’re going to typecast the New York City audience, that it’s more likely to be left of center than right of center. Well, if all we did was have people vote at the end of the debate, it would always be the same result. What we want to do is say who’s moved the audience the most? Who’s been the most persuasive? And we’ve had some very, very interesting responses. We did a debate a few years ago where the motion was, literally the motion was George W. Bush is the worst president in the last 50 years. That motion failed in New York City, on the Upper West Side, which you would not expect. But what happened was Karl Rove came in to debate in support of the President’s legacy. And the guy was brilliant. He stood up in front of the audience, and his opening line was something like well, the Upper West Side of New York, it’s great to be among friends. And the whole place fell apart laughing. And from that moment, he kind of disarmed any antagonism that might have been there. And then he just made a very, very spirited not only defense of George W. Bush’s presidency, but also took the tactic of pointing out other presidents of the last 50 years who are arguably weaker. At the end of the evening, while the majority of the audience still voted that George Bush was the worst president of the last half century, he actually moved more people to his side than his opponents did, and so he came out the winner.

HH: Now are we allowed to use tricks, because I was thinking about bringing, Gray Davis is one of my opponents. I was thinking about bringing along a flashlight and turning it off in the middle to remind the audience of his power policy. But is that allowed or anything like that?

JD: A little bit of fun is okay.

HH: Okay, just checking.

JD: I’m not sure that won’t work on radio all that well.

HH: No, I know. We have sound effects and things like that. So how many of these have you done? And key question, which one has been the most memorable?

JD: I’ve done at this point about 65, I think. Or 60.

HH: Wow.

JD: Maybe it’s in the 50-60 range, definitely more than 50. Kind of, one of the most memorable and the most surprising, we did a debate where the motion was ban college football.

HH: What?

JD: Yeah.

HH: Who was for that? And are they in jail now?

JD: Malcolm Gladwell and Buzz Bissinger were for the motion, and they won that night by a little bit. But what was interesting about that debate is that it actually go into some really kind of interesting areas. It was sort of a three-pronged argument. One of the arguments was the whole issue of head injuries, another was whether college football, whether universities really need college football in order to survive financially, and the third one was does football or sports have anything to do with academics, with the academics out of education? And it was interesting, we had two football players on the opposite side who were both accomplished guys who had gone on to do other things in life. They played pro, and they played in college. And one was a broadcaster, and one had become a lawyer. And they were very, very passionate about the difference the game had made in their lives. They lost that night, but what was fascinating about that debate were just the many directions it went into. And it wasn’t a one note kind of thing, and that happens a lot with our debates, because by bringing on teams of debaters, we end up getting kind of multiplex points of view, even though they are mustered in the interest of winning on the specific motion. It doesn’t mean they’re parroting each other. They kind of bring sort of a manifold argument to it, and it’s pretty interesting.

HH: Oh, no, I think that is a fascinating proposition. I’m thinking of my law partner, Gary Wolensky, who represents most of the helmet manufacturers in the United States. And he was unaware of that. I’m going to have to go find it. Are these all archived and available for podcast, John Donvan?

JD: Yeah, we’re going to be live streaming the debate tomorrow night from Aspen here, and we do that all the time. And then they all stay on our website in their full form. Some of them, all of them, actually, still are also rebroadcast in somewhat shorter form on PBS stations, and as you mentioned, they’re also made into a radio show on NPR stations.

HH: Have they begun to be filmed for distribution through the PBS network?

JD: Yes, they have. We started about eight months ago.

HH: And how is that going? Are most of the bigs picking it up, you know, NET and…

JD: Yeah, we are on NET in New York, we’re on in Chicago. As you know how that system works…

HH: Yes.

JD: It’s case by case, so we’re just building it now.

HH: The worst run network in the history of networks. And so the question, are they giving you decent time slots on which to watch…it’s sort of like Buckley Firing Line. It’s very much a reinvigoration of Buckley’s Firing Line, which was one of their signature calling cards.

JD: Well, we’re not on unbelievably good times, to be honest. I think on NET, we’re on pretty early in the mornings. But you know, the way we see it…

HH: A foothold.

JD: A whole lot better than nothing, and it’s the beginning.

HH: It’s Normandy, and move into the rest of Europe. John Donvan, I look forward to seeing you on the West Coast in September, and congratulations on this.

JD: Thank you.

HH: The website is

End of interview.


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