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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
What’s amazing, in retrospect, is that it took so long to get candidates for national office to face one another in person. After all, if grade-school children and candidates for the most modest township councils are expected to debate one another, why not the major-party presidential candidates? Well, in part because Congress said they couldn’t, although not intentionally. A clause in the Communications Act of 1934 required broadcasters to offer equal time to all candidates, not just those from the two major parties. Getting Nixon and Kennedy on television in 1960 required Congress to suspend the equal-time provision, which is why you didn’t see Farrell Dobbs, candidate of the Socialist Workers party, there too. The equal-time clause remained a stumbling block until the mid-1970s, when federal regulators declared that debates sponsored by outside agencies were news events not bound by legislative restrictions. The debates in 1976,1980, and 1984 were sponsored by the League of Women Voters, and those since by an independent organization, the Commission on Presidential Debates, which not only sponsors them but studies them afterward.
The years of protracted labor between 1960 and 1976 led to the birth of the modern presidential debate, but it was a painful delivery. As Carter and Ford marked the beginning of a new era on September 23, 1976, the biggest technical snafu of all broke out on the stage of Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater. The sound went dead, and for 27 excruciating minutes, so did the two candidates. Programmed for every eventuality except this one, they stood stiffly behind their podiums while workers scurried to find and fix the problem. It was a vignette every bit as memorable as the actual debate itself, for it demonstrated television’s power over the powerful. With 70 million people watching, neither Carter nor Ford risked an unguarded moment, an unscripted gesture, or anything that might send the wrong message at the wrong moment.
Those 27 minutes in Philadelphia have come to symbolize the worst aspects of today’s debates. They often seem overly scripted, with the candidates acting like two tentative quarterbacks determined not to make a mistake in the biggest game of their lives. Suffice to say that spontaneity has not been, is not, and may never be a feature of American presidential debates. They will never be confused with the rollicking chaos of question time in the British House of Commons, and in the era of the sound bite and short attention span, the exchanges will never be mistaken for the windy marathons of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Those looking for the introspection of Marcus Aurelius or the eloquence of Cicero will not find them in the ritualistic opening statements that accompany most debates.
It was George H. W. Bush, a man not associated with irony, who called attention to the canned aspect of the debates during an exchange he had with Michael Dukakis in 1988. After the Massachusetts Democrat accused Bush of planning to “raid the Social Security Trust Fund” to balance the federal budget, the moderator, Jim Lehrer, told Bush he had a minute to respond.
“Is this the time to unleash our one-liners?” Bush asked. Without waiting for Lehrer’s approval, he continued: “That answer was about as clear as Boston Harbor.” Bush had been fed that line for use at an appropriate moment, as he was self-consciously noting. (It was designed to remind viewers that Boston had had some pollution problems while Dukakis was governor.) If presidential campaigns were slow to adapt to the media age, they were, thanks to George H. W. Bush, on the cutting edge of postmodernism.
Because we are all postmodernists now, it’s easy to dismiss the debates as no more authentic than the modern political convention, and perhaps a good deal less entertaining. This year, as in campaigns past, the candidates will spend hours cramming for the debates; much of that time will be spent not in mustering arguments but in rehearsing the show-business aspects of the events: the “spontaneous” replies to anticipated attacks, the poll-tested themes vetted by committees and focus groups, the emphasis on appearance rather than on content. Ronald Reagan’s folksy description of Jimmy Carter as a “witch doctor” who “gets mad when a good doctor comes along with a cure” is among the many scripted one-liners that have detracted from the debates’ earnest mission of educating voters.
Given the staged quality of the these made-for-television events, it is hardly a wonder that some observers contend that the real debates take place not in front of millions of voters but behind the scenes, where aides argue furiously over such pressing issues as the candidates’ wardrobes or the proper times to unleash their one-liners. After each debate, commentators typically analyze the candidates’ performances in phrases usually associated with either prizefights (“The President didn’t land a knockout blow tonight, Dan”) or show business (“Tom, the senator gave a subdued performance”). Analysts grade the rival candidates on appearance and delivery. And as so often with television, what the candidates say seems less important than how they look.