Joe Biden was a bit of a weenie in high school, but the star halfback got the girls, as halfbacks nearly always do. Paul Ryan was a high-school nerd but he got to drive the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.
Both men have moved on since then, though few of us outlive high school, and Thursday night they collide in a crucial debate at tiny Centre College in Kentucky.
Nobody actually votes for a vice president, but this time the veep debate is crucial. If Mr. Ryan "wins," he'll keep up the undeniable momentum of the Republican campaign. The veep is counted on by Barack Obama to apply the brakes to Mitt Romney's wagon before everything gets out of hand.
The president himself went to Hollywood on Sunday night to collect Tinseltown swag and to reassure the glitterati — the actors, producers, rock "musicians" and other celebrities who imagine themselves keen students of statecraft. He told them he's not a "professional" like they are -- Hollywood ranks a president somewhere below a guitar-plucker — and the glitterati should cut the Messiah a little slack. Everybody has the occasional bad night.
Mr. Biden has been called in for six days of uninterrupted all-nighters to prepare for Mr. Ryan. Joe, who barely made the top 600 of his class at the University of Delaware, was nevertheless famous as an undergraduate "crammer." But it's not what good ol' Joe will remember to say, but what he can remember not to say. Will he boast that Mr. Obama and the Democrats have a trillion-dollar tax increase coming (as he did the other day in Iowa)? Will he concede again that the middle class has been "buried" for these past four years (as he did the other day somewhere else)?
Like the Wall Street banks the president says are too big to fail, good ol' Joe is too big to muzzle. He's the gaffemeister of Washington, always good for a laugh. But everybody likes good ol' Joe, always the life of the (Democratic) party. He's likely to be his charming self at Centre College. Mr. Ryan is the smart one and knows to beware.
Centre College is the place made for exceeding expectations. The small Presbyterian school in the middle, or "centre," of Kentucky has produced two Supreme Court justices (one of them a chief justice), 11 governors, 13 U.S. senators, 43 U.S. representatives and 10 presiding moderators of the Presbyterian Church. Woodrow Wilson once told smug Princeton alumni that "there's a little college down in Kentucky which in 60 years has graduated more men who have acquired prominence and fame than has Princeton in her 150 years."
But Centre's most endearing claim to fame was registered by its football team. In the years just after World War I, fair Harvard, as impossible as it may be to believe, was the presiding colossus of the gridiron — the combined Alabama, Notre Dame and Oklahoma of its day — only occasionally scored on and almost never defeated. This was when "student-athletes" were actually students. Having not been beaten in two years, in 1921 Harvard invited tiny Centre, enrollment 264, to Cambridge as a cupcake for the Crimson to feast on as it lightly practiced for a showdown with Princeton.
After a locker-room prayer — they're called "the Praying Colonels" to this day — the team played Harvard to a scoreless tie at half-time. Then, early in the third quarter, quarterback Alvin "Bo" McMillan, who would become a successful NFL coach, ran to his right, faked a pass, darted left and raced down the sidelines for 32 yards, taking two Harvard defenders with him across the goal line. The Colonels then held off the Crimson for a 6-0 victory, which would be remembered later as "the greatest upset of the century." To prove it was not fluke, two years later the Colonels defeated Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia on consecutive Saturdays.
That should be inspiration enough for both men. Mr. Ryan needs no six-day stuffing exercise to remember enough to hold his own. Nobody knows the numbers like he does; like the late Wilbur Mills, he takes the U.S. budget with him for bedside reading. He can overdo the numbers in the way good ol' Joe can overdo the gaffes, but both should be at the top of their games. Both men are devout Roman Catholics, and like the Colonels, they know when and how to pray in tight spots. This could be fun.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.
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