The first Presidential debate ended with in predictable results.
The Trump supporters said their man won while the Biden backers claimed he did the better job.
Can we all agree it was something less than the Lincoln/Douglas “gold standard of debates” which occurred in 1858?
Those 7 sessions in that hotly-contested Illinois Senate race were a wee bit different than what we observed this past September.
Each candidate had 1 hour opening statements followed by 90 minute rebuttals.
But there were no television cameras or even microphones.
Probably no make-up either.
The Lincoln/Douglas talks established a standard for the process which we have rarely met since then.
First of all, let’s define the word.
As a noun, “debate” means a formal discussion on a particular topic in a public meeting or legislative assembly, in which opposing arguments are put forward.
As a verb, “debate” means to argue about (a subject), especially in a formal manner.
What’s really muddled the debate process is television (radio…with pictures, I like to call it).
It all became a different game after the 1960 Nixon/Kennedy head-to-head in September of that year, the first televised Presidential debate.
Radio listeners thought Nixon won the debate but those watching television thought Nixon’s pale, visibly sweaty visage and his infamous “five o’clock shadow” just made JFK look more “Presidential”.
After that, you had to be more than a good public speaker.
You had to look like a good public speaker.
It’s interesting to note that after the Kennedy/Nixon debate in 1960, there were no other Presidential debates until 1976 with the Georgia peanut farmer Jimmy Carter squaring off against Gerald Ford.
That debate found Ford stating Poland and Eastern Europe weren’t under the control of the Soviet Union and voters didn’t agree.
In 1980, in the only Presidential debate of that race, it was Carter against former California Governor Ronald Reagan, with Independent candidate John Anderson tossing his hat in the ring.
Americans were being held hostage by Iranian terrorists in Tehran, there was runaway inflation, stagnant economic growth, rising gas prices and even shortages and the Soviets had troops in Afghanistan.
On October 28th, American viewers heard Reagan ask, “Are you better off now than you were 4 years ago?”
The result was a Reagan landslide.
The 1992 Presidential campaign saw a trio of candidates with incumbent George H.W. Bush versus former Arkansas governor William J. Clinton and Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot vying for the office.
The made-for-tv Bill Clinton was clear and concise with his answers while Bush appeared disinterested and was caught staring at this watch several times.
Perot got in the way.
In his first debate with George Bush in the 2000 Presidential race, Al Gore spent the night sighing and rolling his eyes.
While many thought Gore won the debate, Americans were turned off by Gore’s “know-it-all” attitude and Bush’ fortunes were boosted.
Remember the “hanging chads” in Florida?
Some other debates provided some good political fodder.
During the Democratic primary debate in 1984, Walter Mondale asked Gary Hart, “Where’s the beef?” and Clara Peller and Burger King got a marketing boost.
In 1988, during the Vice-Presidential face-off between Lloyd Bentsen and Dan (potato) Quayle, “knowing your opponent” came into play.
Bentsen figured Quayle would make a comparison between himself and JFK.
To which, Bentsen replied, “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mind. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
The problem with debates today, though, is TV.
Lincoln/Douglas would have bombed badly in the ratings because they were focused on issues and not sound bites, or Twitter talk as we are today.
Lincoln was not a handsome man and Nixon might have stood a chance on the screen with him.
Furthermore, the moderators usually bring their own political baggage to the podium and what we get is often far from a session where we can get a clear feeling for where the candidates stand on issues.
We get bombarded by dozens of “news” networks daily, our smart phones get beeped and buzzed with all sorts of political “views” and yet most of us take very little time to delve into issues.
I think this media scrutiny is possibly the biggest deterrent to decent folks running for any political office beyond local races.
Would you want to subject yourself and family to the political grandstanding we often see today under the guise of fact-seeking and reporting?
I saw several posts on Facebook after the first Presidential debate stating, “Is this the best we can do?”
Until the media returns to some degree of civility, I’m afraid that what we see is what we get.
There’s been talk of modifying the current debate format.
I am reminded of a consultant who told us years ago that that no matter how hard you try to polish it, a turd is still a turd.
That being said, we need to find something else to buff.