Time again for the great debates
On Sept. 26, 1960 – for the first time in history – a presidential debate was televised and a hungry nation tuned in to hear what candidates Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy would say.
Back then, televised debates played a critical role in helping to shape voters’ perceptions of a candidate.
That’s not the case today.
Twenty-four-hour news channels, the Internet, stand-up comedians, even this publication present opinions and information that more than likely have colored your perception – even before the great debates.
But back in 1960, when Nixon went up against Kennedy, debate was king. For a large majority of Americans, it was the opinion shaper. And the opinion that night was that Nixon lost.
He wasn’t feeling well, on top of which, he refused makeup.
The result was a scruffy, haggard look that paled next to Kennedy’s confidence.
Both men knew how to win a debate. They were skilled speakers, but only one came ready for television.
In the eyes of 80 million Americans, he had it all. While Nixon looked tired, Kennedy looked ready to lead, and America followed. To those who listened to the debate on the radio, Nixon won. To those who watched it, Kennedy did.
Thus was the televised power of the great debate.
Tonight is less likely to have the same effect.
When Mitt Romney and Barack Obama make their very polished appearance in Denver, the fear is that the debate will not present anything new. But, we can hope.
Tonight, the debate will consist of 45 minutes on the economy, followed by 15 minutes on health care, 15 on the role of government and finally 15 more on governing.
Future debates include a town hall meeting on Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., with questions presented by Gallop selected, undecided voters, and then a traditional debate on foreign policy on Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla.
Will Americans get answers – or even suggestions about real solutions to the problems they face? Probably not. We’ve been listening long enough to know that rhetoric runs deep.
Debaters often win debates not because they “dazzle you with brilliance,” but because they “baffle you with ….” Well, you know the expression.
But let’s be fair. How can anyone really convey the breadth and depth of domestic and foreign policy in 90 minutes of debate, moderated off into two-minute sound bites? That’s all the time each candidate is supposed to get for each response. Though, if past debates are any indication, it’s likely that both candidates will try to steal the show – at least once or twice.
Remember when Ronald Reagan debated George H.W. Bush in the 1980 primary? The debate was paid for by Reagan’s campaign and knowing that Reagan wanted to make an opening remark – and steal the show – the moderator asked to have Reagan’s mike cut off. Reagan stole the show anyway by declaring, “I am paying for this microphone!”
A watching world saw a candidate that night who could take charge.
Later Reagan said, “I may have won the debate, the primary – and the nomination – right there.”
Just as Reagan’s command of the mike and his gift for public speech made him memorable, so did Gore’s unfortunate sighs. When Al Gore debated George W. Bush in 2000, his audible, protracted sighs as Bush was speaking failed to deliver their intended impact. Rather than making Bush look stupid, they made Gore seem disrespectful and condescending.
There are, of course, many other memorable moments in political debates. Often it’s the gaffes that end up as fodder for comedians that we remember most, not the discussions of policy or suggestions of solutions. And for that reason, many of us will tune in tonight.
For whatever reason you tune in, afterward join us on Facebook or online at newsmagazinenetwork.com and let us know what you think. Tell us who you think won, what the best answers were and the most memorable moments.