Presidential debates, especially the intra-party variety we are witnessing these days, are frequent to the point of becoming common place, if not benign. They seem to prove what Marshall McLuhan said about medium equaling message. The recent gotcha-fest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama could make even the wildest political animal long for the days when debates were fewer and farther between.
Or at least interesting.
I’ve found myself longing a bit for those sixteen silent years between 1960 and 1976, when debates weren’t part of presidential campaigns. In fact, they were rarely mentioned at all. Maybe Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were on to something.
In spite of abundant current evidence of forensic mediocrity, there does seem to be renewed interest these days in the gold standard for political debate – those serious and cerebral verbal exchanges between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas one hundred and fifty years ago. And, even though their experience was part of a campaign for a U.S. Senate seat, and not the White House itself, comparing that historic dialogue with what political debating has become in our age tempts one to switch the television channel to something with more depth.
Like a rerun of The Price is Right on The Game Show Network.
It actually took ninety years for what Abe and Steve did so well to even begin to impact modern American presidential politics. In 1948, Republican hopeful Harold Stassen debated Thomas Dewey before the Oregon Republican Primary. In 1956, Estes Kefauver debated Adlai Stevenson before the Florida Democratic Primary. And, of course, all modern day discussion of presidential debates inevitably includes a reference to the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960.
The first of those now legendary debates took place in Chicago on September 26, 1960. It was moderated by Howard K. Smith and watched on television by more than 70 million Americans. But, in fact, it really wasn’t their first debate.
With this year’s Pennsylvania primary now on center stage, it’s interesting to note that Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy had their very own Keystone state debate moment many years before – back in 1947.
The two young Navy war veterans were elected to Congress in 1946 – Kennedy from Massachusetts and Nixon from California. During their first days in congress, they were appointed to the House Education and Labor Committee and were, as Nixon later recalled, “like a pair of unmatched bookends.”