During the 1992 presidential election, third-party candidate Ross Perot selected Vice Admiral James Stockdale — a Medal of Honor recipient and POW during the Vietnam War — as his running mate. The lone vice presidential debate of that year featured Republican Dan Quayle, Democrat Al Gore and the independent James Stockdale together on one stage. When asked to give a brief introduction of himself, Stockdale, a political newcomer despite his age, delivered one of the most infamous lines in American political history when he began with, “Who am I? Why am I here?”
In context, the line was supposed to serve as a straightforward, no-nonsense setup to the story of his life — an extraordinary military career, a harrowing journey as a prisoner of war — but taken out of context, the line was ridiculed in the press and Stockdale was lampooned as a forgetful old-timer who was long past his prime.
Sadly, to a younger generation unaware of his place as one of the most decorated men in the history of the Navy, it would be this sound byte that would forever define Stockdale and relegate him to nothing more than a humorous political footnote.
This moment tees up two important lessons: the first in answering those questions themselves, and the second in the reaction to an episode like this.
In a world where we’re constantly told that “content is king” and endless platforms exist to serve up comments, opinions, insights and rants in just seconds, we would all do well to ask ourselves those notorious questions from the 1992 debate: “Who am I? Why am I here?” Quality content can put a human face on a business, create greater customer loyalty and establish you as a thought leader — while the opposite can permanently damage your reputation and your brand.
And that’s where the reaction comes in. When voters interpreted Stockdale’s introduction in a different way than originally intended, the damage was already done. Never mind the accomplishments, the decades of service, the courageous fight to stay alive during his captivity. A few seconds of airtime changed everything, fair or unfair.
More than 20 years later, the speed of media has jumped by orders of magnitude. Striving for quality content helps keep audiences positively engaged — and developing a healthy respect for the instantaneous nature of media (and how people perceive your message) is critical to communicating effectively in the 21st century.