- Historic Sites
There We Go Again
In their surprisingly short history, presidential debates have never lived up to our expectations—yet they’ve always proved invaluable
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
In the coming months George W. Bush, John Kerry, and their running mates will submit themselves to a relatively new ritual in American presidential politics: a series of face-to-face debates. Broadcast on television and radio throughout the world, the presidential debates are the political world’s equivalent of football’s Super Bowl, with all the attendant media hype but no lewd halftime show to overshadow the proceedings.
Young American voters—to use a phrase that some pollsters regard as an oxymoron—might be surprised to learn that once upon a time presidential candidates campaigned quite deliberately on parallel tracks. Their paths never crossed, save on occasions like the exclusive Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York, when they exchanged not ideas but witticisms, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. In fact the very notion of campaigning for the Presidency, never mind debating an opponent, would have struck some candidates in the early nineteenth century as undignified, and that was long before Bill Clinton discussed his choice of underwear in 1992.
By the middle of the twentieth century, of course, presidential candidates routinely submitted themselves to the indignities of the campaign trail. But while they no longer could avoid direct appeals for votes, at least they could avoid talking directly to their opponents. Most people believe all of that changed in 1960, when John Kennedy and Richard Nixon famously engaged in the first debates between presidential candidates of opposing parties (the 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were in a race for the Senate). While there’s little question that the 1960 debates were historic, they did not, in fact, establish a precedent or “change the face of American politics forever,” as some have suggested. Sixteen years and three elections would pass before presidential candidates faced each other again.
As a matter of fact, the initial Kennedy-Nixon debate on September 26, 1960, was not the first face-to-face meeting between presidential candidates. Twelve years earlier, in 1948, up to 80 million people had tuned in their radios to hear the Republican rivals Thomas E. Dewey of New York and Harold Stassen of Minnesota debate each other in Portland before the Oregon presidential primary. In 1956 the two leading Democratic candidates, Adlai Stevenson of Illinois and Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, had had at each other in Miami before the Florida primary. That debate was televised nationally.
These early debates, between primary opponents and between Kennedy and Nixon, shared one telling characteristic: None featured a sitting President. Not until Gerald Ford met Jimmy Carter in Philadelphia in 1976 did an incumbent President stand face to face with a challenger. For that reason, the Ford-Carter debates of 1976 arguably were more historic and more precedent-shattering than the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960. For the first time in American history, a President deigned to exchange views with an opponent, and perhaps it was no accident that it took a modest man like Gerald Ford, who had won the Presidency by appointment rather than election, to commit such an act of lese majesty.
Challengers long before Carter had tried to goad their incumbent rivals into venturing out of the Rose Garden, but none succeeded. Wendell Willkie challenged Franklin Roosevelt to a debate in 1940, and Barry Goldwater did the same with Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Both were brushed aside. Presidents simply didn’t debate, you see. Besides, it was in the interest of neither Roosevelt nor Johnson to be seen on the same stage as their underdog challengers. As any political consultant will tell you, there’s a built-in stature gap between a sitting President and a challenger, no matter how qualified that challenger may be. Descending from the Olympus of the White House to exchange views with a mere candidate is to shrink that gap and immediately give credibility to the challenger. That just won’t do.
The knockout blow has become the godot of American politics.
Even after the interest the Kennedy-Nixon debates inspired in 1960, there were no debates in 1964, 1968, or 1972. Of course, it was hardly a coincidence that Richard Nixon was a candidate in two of those three debate-free elections. He, after all, had been considered the loser in his sessions with Kennedy. He had more than held his own as a debater, but a nationally televised debate is as much about television as it is about argument, as he belatedly discovered. Having experienced all the risks and few of the rewards of televised debates, Nixon wasn’t about to share a studio with Hubert Humphrey in 1968 or George McGovern in 1972.
So it was not until President Ford shook hands with Jimmy Carter in 1976 that the institution we now take for granted, the quadrennial presidential debate, became a regular feature in the election cycle. That tradition will continue this year with three debates between President Bush and Senator Kerry, scheduled for September 30 at the University of Miami, October 8 at Washington University, in St. Louis, and October 13 at Arizona State University. The vice-presidential candidates will debate on October 5 at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland.