Pundits never tire of blaming current political ills on a collapse of some part of the election process. Earlier this year, I examined two allegedly broken pieces of the machine for Slate—the vice-presidential selection process and the party conventions—and concluded that they’re no worse than they used to be. With the current controversy over the staging of the Gore-Bush debates, some are pining for the golden age of the presidential debates. Is this golden age just another selective memory?
The answer is: sort of. On the one hand, candidates have been debating since the birth of the republic, often with an erudition unimaginable from today’s politicians. One long-ago congressional election debate pitted James Madison against James Monroe. On the other hand, debates didn’t become a staple of political campaigns until quite recently—so while today’s contests certainly feel stale and predictable, it’s fanciful to imagine some classical past of widespread ennobling oratory.
The great exception of the 19th century was the series of contests in 1858 between Illinois Senate aspirants Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas—the standard to which today’s debates are invidiously compared. Not surprisingly, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, though an admirable display of oratory and erudition, have benefited from nostalgic gilding. While tens of thousands trekked far to hear the candidates clash for hours on end, the audience couldn’t even vote for them, since state legislatures elected senators., people assembled more for amusement than political education. Moreover, while Lincoln and Douglas sparred with intelligence and panache over weighty issues (mainly slavery), they also stooped to ad hominem barbs and pandered to the entertainment-hungry crowd. Besides, the outcome hardly showcased democracy at its finest: The opponent of slavery’s expansion—Lincoln—lost.
The advent of broadcasting made debate a national sport, with radio emerging as an ideal medium for speeches, question-and-answer sessions, and debates (although the encounters typically centered on a contentious issue such as relief programs or atomic energy, not an election). The first presidential debate was held in May 1948, when 40 million to 80 million Americans listened to Republican candidates Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen duel on the ABC, NBC, and Mutual Broadcasting System radio networks. Journalists weren’t part of the mix: Each man just gave a 20-minute opening statement and an eight-and-a-half-minute rebuttal. Dewey’s superior performance helped him win the GOP nod.
After the successful Dewey-Stassen event, politicians and journalists called for more contests. In May 1952, NBC, Life magazine, and the League of Women Voters sponsored the first televised debate:. Four years later, Democratic candidates Estes Kefauver and Adlai Stevenson squared off in an hourlong encounter televised by ABC. Yet fall debates between Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower, although proposed in 1952 and 1956, never came off. The well-liked Ike, notorious for his butchery of the English language, saw little reason on either occasion to jeopardize his lead.
By 1960, 88 percent of American homes had a television, and both major candidates were ready to exploit that audience with a head-to-head encounter. Richard Nixon, who had won election to Congress in 1946 by out-debating his district’s incumbent, thought highly of his own forensic skills. John Kennedy, for his part, had bested Hubert Humphrey in a primary-season debate and wanted to erase the notion that he was too callow for high office.
Various offers greeted the candidates. NBC urged eight debates, including one between the vice-presidential contestants and one that would involve minor-party candidates. Other network officials wanted Kennedy and Nixon to quiz each other (both candidates nixed that plan). Extensive haggling resulted in four debates, which, at Nixon’s suggestion, all the networks agreed to air. A panel of four journalists asked the questions.
The outcome has become legend. While radio listeners thought Nixon fared well, and even TV watchers praised his later performances, the candidates’ contrasting TV images in the much-hyped, much-watched first debate made all the difference. The confident, tanned, witty Kennedy outshone the sweaty, stubbly, awkward Nixon, and (so the legend goes) both Camelot and the age of TV politics were born.
What’s forgotten is how much derision along with the excitement the so-called “Great Debates” attracted. Critics objected to the networks’ constant self-promotion, to the press’s attention to such ostensibly trivial matters as the lighting and whether the candidates could use notes, and to the irrelevance of the questions. Compared with previous debates, the candidates spent less time on their own disquisitions and more time fielding queries from panels of newsmen. Historian Daniel Boorstin, in his 1962 book The Image, as “a clinical example of the pseudo-event,” his famous term for a staged happening that becomes newsworthy only because reporters treat it as such.
It was self-interest, not the intellectuals’ criticisms, that stymied presidential debates for the next three elections. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson wouldn’t risk his lead by dueling with Barry Goldwater; and in 1968 and 1972, a chastened Nixon concluded he had nothing to gain by confronting Humphrey or George McGovern. (Primary debates did continue—George W. Bush take note—in informal settings. In June 1968, Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy were jointly interviewed on ABC, and in 1972 both ABC’s Issues and Answers and CBS’s Face the Nation held forums with multiple Democratic aspirants.)
In 1976, both major party candidates finally agreed to duel. President Gerald Ford, never elected even to the vice presidency, needed to prove his legitimacy, while Jimmy Carter, an obscure Georgia governor, hoped for a stature boost by appearing beside the president. The League of Women Voters, which that spring had organized several primary debates and circulated petitions urging general-election debates, supervised. Using the Kennedy-Nixon format of podiums and a press panel, Ford and Carter met three times and their running mates (Bob Dole and Walter Mondale) once (a first). Despite some famous blunders—Ford’s declaration that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe”—they garnered positive notices for reviving the democratic spirit.
Since then, every election has included debates, but popular interest has flagged. Candidates quickly mastered the routine, rehearsing every detail down to the punch lines. (“Where’s the beef?” “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” And, of course, Ronald Reagan’s, “I paid for this microphone!”) Viewers wound up dwelling disproportionately on the inevitable gaffes, the only moments that provided amusement or authenticity.
Little variation enlivened the debates in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The in 1988 from the League of Women Voters by the Committee on Presidential Debates (run by ex-heads of the Democratic and Republican parties) didn’t affect their quality. Nor did the use of a single moderator as compared with a panel.
In 1992, the debates were rejuvenated by the addition of third-party candidate and first-class prattler Ross Perot, as well as by a “town hall” format in which “ordinary citizens” asked the questions. (This was Clinton’s idea, shrewdly designed to highlight his empathy.) Viewership soared. But in 1996, the audience lobbed up softballs as the candidates played home-run derby—and the debates sank back into dreariness.
If history suggests any common ingredients for keeping audiences interested (and I’m not sure it does), I might pinpoint two: 1) a tight race, such as we witnessed in 1960, 1976, and 1992, which makes the debates matter; and 2) some element of novelty, which keeps the candidates from resorting to boilerplate. Especially now, when both candidates’ every gesture seems scripted, we yearn for the unprogrammed selves that were at least glimpsed in Lincoln-Douglas, Dewey-Stassen, Nixon-Kennedy, and Ford-Carter. Each of these debates promised something unexpected to intrigue the audience.
However transparent his recent debate-dodging, George W. Bush is right to suggest that the standard, on-the-stage-behind-the-podium format shouldn’t be automatically embraced. Unfortunately, his solution, to turn the proceedings over to the backslapping Larry King and Tim Russert—who for all his superficial tenacity never truly defies anyone with power—would surely make matters worse.
My solution, which I’ve detailed on the Tom Paine Web site, would be to replace the pundit-panelists with experts on political and social problems: political theorists, psychoanalysts, educators, economists, perhaps even historians. New questioners would at least add some unpredictability. Others, too, have. Whatever the answer, we should realize it’s OK to treat politics as entertainment. The Lincoln-Douglas throngs came to laugh, applaud, and have a good time. Today’s candidates might feel free to be spontaneous—and Americans might start to like politics—if we granted that it’s supposed to be fun.