Paul Greenberg

"The Lincoln-Douglas debates exemplified the oral tradition at its best. By current standards, Lincoln and Douglas broke every rule of political discourse. They subjected their audiences (which were as large as 15,000 on one occasion) to a painstaking analysis of complex issues. They spoke with considerably more candor, in a pungent, colloquial, sometimes racy style, than politicians think prudent today. They took clear positions from which it was difficult to retreat. They conducted themselves as if political leadership carried with it an obligation to clarify issues instead of merely getting elected. The contrast between these justly famous debates and present-day presidential debates, in which the media define the issues and draw up the ground rules, is unmistakable and highly unflattering to ourselves."

So wrote an astute observer of American politics and life named Christopher Lasch years before the presidential "debates" were drawing their questions from technological achievements like YouTube.

Last week's Republican presidential debate out of St. Petersburg, Fla., was more of an instant elimination contest. It might as well have been emceed by Donald Trump rather than an anchorman. It was a great debate the way a reality show is Shakespeare.

I use the term emcee, as in Master of Ceremonies, rather than moderator, advisedly. For the role of ringmaster in this kind of circus of superficiality is not to moderate the proceedings but to fire them up. His job is to put the participants through their paces and preferably on the spot. He's there to guard against any vestige of sustained thought marring the night's entertainment.

After watching this latest carnival styled a debate, it is hard to believe there was a time when leading American politicians cared less about winning a particular office than about swaying their listeners, perhaps even their opponent, to their point of view. Such a leader might even understand that, with great questions at stake, it was less important whether he won or lost than whether the principles he championed would prevail.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 set the standard for American political dialogue as the Union itself lurched from one crisis to the next, with secession and civil war in the wings. Technologically, those debates were primitive compared to our modern televised variety, complete with high-tech gizmos and instant polls. But in their old-style rhetoric, in their recurrent return to first principles, in their attempt to grapple with grave and pressing issues, or even find some way around them, Lincoln-Douglas made today's rhetorical exchanges look simple-minded.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.