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There We Go Again

June 2024
9min read

In their surprisingly short history, presidential debates have never lived up to our expectations—yet they’ve always proved invaluable

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.

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.

“Presidential debates aggravate one of the most serious flaws in modern American politics; they emphasize the entertainment value of politics,” says Richard Shenkman, editor of George Mason University’s History News Network, “They turn every voter into a theatergoer, and instead of asking whether a person’s rßsumß is appropriate for the Presidency, they ask how a candidate performs on television. That’s the wrong question; that’s the worst question, because it’s irrelevant to the office of the Presidency.” So is a candidate’s pugilistic skill, yet before every debate the press speculates on whether or not one of the candidates will administer a knockout blow. It has become the Godot of American presidential politics. The press has been waiting for one ever since Gerald Ford knocked himself to the canvas in 1976 by insisting that Eastern Europe was not under the domination of the Soviet Union. The gaffe badly hurt Ford’s vain attempt to win election in his own right, and it remains a cautionary tale for candidates and their handlers as they script their cautious answers to prospective questions.


All that having been said, it is hard to imagine a modern presidential campaign without debates; that’s how much of an institution they have become. While the nominees are not obliged to participate, it’s also hard to imagine a candidate getting away with skipping one, as Jimmy Carter did in 1980 to protest the inclusion of the third-party candidate John Anderson. Carter, of course, later debated Reagan one-on-one, and we remember Reagan’s turning to Carter and saying, in that unmistakable voice, “There you go again.” The phrase immediately entered the popular lexicon. Carter, for his part, provided a memorable moment when he said that after consulting his young daughter, Amy, he had concluded that “the control of nuclear arms” was the era’s most pressing concern. His daughter certainly was correct, but viewers and voters (the two are not always the same) would have preferred to know that their President could have reached that conclusion without consulting an adolescent.

For all their flaws, and perhaps not always for the right reasons, the debates can provide a campaign’s most telling moments. These glimpses may or may not provide insight into a prospective President’s agenda or governing skills, but they often reveal personal qualities that the candidates would prefer to keep under wraps. And in a time when all politics is autobiography, authentic personal glimpses—so rare on the campaign trail —can make or break even the most policy-savvy candidate. Michael Dukakis discovered that in 1988, when his opposition to the death penalty was challenged by CNN’s Bernard Shaw, who wanted to know if he would change his mind if Kitty Dukakis, his wife, were raped and murdered. Dukakis’s reply was logical, articulate, and shockingly unemotional. George H. W. Bush’s inability to explain how a bad economy was affecting him in 1992 played into the hands of his challenger, Bill Clinton, who talked about out-of-work citizens he knew in his home state of Arkansas. Yes, he felt our pain. Al Gore, long accused of being too wooden and calculating, did nothing to dispel those images during the debates in 2000.

Candidates do not necessarily live or die on the basis of debates. If they did, Walter Mondale would have unseated Ronald Reagan in 1984, after the 73-year-old incumbent’s painful and confused response to Mondale’s criticisms. And Dan Quayle would not have been Vice President after enduring perhaps the most withering putdown in debate history when Lloyd Bentsen told him in 1988 that he was “no Jack Kennedy.”

It certainly is not true that the debates, for all their emphasis on showmanship, display no powerful arguments. Ronald Reagan—there he goes again!—delivered a classic appeal when, in 1980, he asked the country, “Are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago?” Perhaps not the most uplifting appeal the nation has ever heard, but it surely was effective.

Were it not for the debates, Richard Shenkman acknowledges, we would be left with 30-second commercials, talk radio, the Internet, and, for old media types, the occasional newspaper or periodical. We would never see the people who would lead us interacting with each other, even if the interaction is hardly spontaneous.

For that reason alone, we’re better off than 40 years ago.

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