Paul Greenberg

Lincoln-Douglas it wasn't, and could never be the way these televised debates for the highest offices in the land are set up. Who was the Martha Raddatz -- that was the moderator's name this endless Thursday night -- when the Rail Splitter and Little Giant went after each other for seven encounters in 1858 that shook the nation with the realization of where it was and whither it was tending. Thought filled the air back then -- and humor, insight, rodomontade, faith, low jokes and high appeals, long disquisitions and sudden, irrefutable insights.

Across the plains of Illinois as that fateful summer faded, much like the old Union itself, the two men met and exchanged ideas, not grimaces and groans and smirks. They raised the level of American discourse, not lowered it, when they would appear in Ottawa and Freeport, Jonesboro and Galesburg, Quincy and Alton ... little towns known to this day perhaps only because great men debated great ideas there.

They say history makes men; they forget that men make history. If the times were different then, men made them so. As they make these times and these debates dull, stale and unprofitable.

Moderator? Who needed one in 1858? Any more than they are needed now. Unfortunately, we get one nevertheless. To moderate the views of Lincoln and Douglas in 1858 would have come close to historical sacrilege. Of course, both men knew and quoted Scripture; it was the lingua franca of the day. How out of place that would have seemed in this evening's diluted debate, which so often failed to rise even to the level of conversation. The "debaters" talked past each other, firing wild shots into the cold Kentucky night. You'd have to struggle to remind yourself during this debate that Abraham Lincoln was born in that state somewhere on the edge of the ever moving American frontier. Tonight thought, if any, was immobile.

By the time those long-ago yet ever-present debates began, Mr. Lincoln had already stated the central issue, theme and inescapable drumbeat of the times when he'd accepted his party's nomination for the U.S. Senate early that summer in Springfield:

"A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other."

It did.

Stephen A. Douglas began the debates as United States senator from Illinois, and would end the election the same way. But everything else had changed. Great ideas will have that effect. At least in a great country.

Moderator? All that Lincoln and Douglas had or needed were the rules. Each candidate would speak for an hour (imagine that, given today's limited attention spans), then the other would speak for an hour and a half (90 minutes!), and after that the first debater got a half-hour rebuttal. And the country stood rapt.

The newspapers printed the full texts of the great debates, though appropriately edited to reflect their own partisan prejudices. That much about journalism hasn't changed. See the New York Times or Fox News, and choose your own tilt. If you've got the heart.

These contemporary debates, presidential or vice-presidential, will never satisfy till they become, well, debates. Not quiz shows or collections of sound bites or whatever it is they have become in place of debates.

Who won, who lost? The old editor, as out-of-it as ever, remembered enough of his high-school debating class to keep a kind of box score, and wound up giving it to Joe Biden on (piddling) points. But was the decision in this down-card bout worth having the way he won it? He smirked, he grimaced, he groaned, he jabbed and feinted, and, oh, yes, interrupted and interrupted and interrupted -- by one count, 82 times in 90 minutes. That's hard to believe. It seemed like more.

But that's our vice president -- and our president's idea of class. By now readers can be forgiven for thinking that our vice president's full name is Gaffe-Prone Joe Biden. But tonight he kept harping on Mitt Romney's 47 percent comment, even though Mr. Romney finally had the wisdom, decency and just plain sense to say had been completely wrong.

Never mind, Joe Biden wasn't about to stop citing that stupid crack. His own many gaffes -- his too-long public career might be described as one long gaffe -- don't count. That's just Joe. He's just being playful, mischievous, you know, the way he was when he plagiarized his own biography from some British lord who'd given a rip-roarer of a speech. The great advantage of not being a serious man is that you can get away with anything you say. It doesn't matter, considering the source.

Maybe that's why Mitt Romney's goof still stands out; he matters.

Outside, the fresh but still sultry night air of Arkansas in early October embraced the old man. Breathing deep, he looked around, then strode off in the right direction, hopeful. And wondered if the country would feel that way the morning of November 7th.

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.