Friday, October 7, 2011

Presidential Debates: An American Institution

Kennedy-Nixon(1960)Today marks the 51st anniversary of the second of the four landmark debates between presidential candidates John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. On the evening of October 7, 1960, the two men clashed in Washington, D.C., on a program moderated by NBC newsman Frank McGee.

Historians have settled on several outcomes of these debates, notably: They highlighted Kennedy’s charisma at the expense of Nixon’s physical appearance and stiff demeanor; established the youthful Kennedy’s public policy bona fides alongside the more experienced Nixon; and it ushered in a new era of melding politics with television.

One of the most memorable exchanges of the debates took place at this second one, the question of dealing with the small islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the Taiwan Strait. Kennedy, in an effort to show his tough line on communism, criticized the Eisenhower-Nixon administration for being too soft on China regarding these islands.

I was a ten-year-old precocious political junkie, and I remember this exchange on the islands. I had no idea where they were or why they might be significant, but the discussion seemed terribly important. That was my introduction to the presidential debates.

For those who appreciate history, the most famous political debates in history were the seven between Illinois senatorial candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858. In discussing the great issues of the day, most notably slavery and its extension, Douglas was reelected to the Senate and Lincoln received wide national attention. Lincoln was elected to the presidency two years later.

Still, the benchmark for most Americans is the Kennedy-Nixon debates. Although sixteen years passed before there was another presidential debate, in 1976, the memory of the spirited exchanges between the Massachusetts senator and the incumbent vice president remained. And over the past 35 years, presidential debates have reached iconic status in American politics.

One individual uniquely qualified to chronicle these debates is frequent debate moderator Jim Lehrer, a PBS journalist and prolific novelist. Lehrer has moderated ten presidential and one vice-presidential debate. Last month he released a book on his experiences entitled Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain. (The term “tension city” was coined by debate critic George  H.W. Bush).

Part memoir and part distillation of interviews later undertaken on the debates, Lehrer provides insights into their content, including those which preceded his involvement, which began in 1988. One focus of the book is what he calls “Major Moments,” essentially notable gaffes or zingers.

Among these key developments were President Gerald Ford’s seeming refusal to admit Soviet domination of Eastern Europe in 1976; Ronald Reagan’s humorous retort to Carter in 1980 (“There he goes again”) and to Mondale in 1984, when he deflated concerns about his age; George H.W. Bush’s dismissive attitude toward vice-presidential rival Geraldine Ferraro in 1984; Democratic vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen skewering Dan Quayle in 1988 (“You’re no Jack Kennedy”) and Al Gore’s odd and seemingly intimidating physical stalking of George W. Bush during the 2000 debate.

Lehrer, who  brings his book alive by candor and self-effacement, also shows how these debates now reflect carefully negotiated events complete with quasi-legal maneuvering to ensure maximum advantage for each side. He reinforces my view that the debates have become tightly-managed theatre, whose primary purpose is to  see whether a candidate can trap or ridicule his opponent.

Since 1988, the debates have been administered by the nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates, which is already planning for 2012. Indeed, twelve colleges and universities are vying to host one of the forums. See: (

Although the debates and even the Commission have been criticized over different issues, the current system seems to be ingrained in the political process. There may be some uncertainty about this already exhausting presidential campaign, but one thing is probably certain: Two candidates will be jointly facing the cameras and the electorate one year from now.

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