Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Great Debate

GUN-toting, moose-hunting hockey moms. Lipstick on pigs. Bridges to Nowhere. Who has the biggest flag lapel pin or the goofiest pastor?

It seems the current presidential election is being scripted by spin meisters, flacks, hired character assassins and mud slingers of every stripe.

It is high time for John McCain and Barack Obama to look the American voters square in the eye and tell them exactly where they stand on the issues.

And some time soon, posturing and politics notwithstanding, we may get a chance for the straight talk we have been so generously promised when the televised candidate debates finally begin.

Think of it as "American Idol" with the free world at stake.

"The candidates and their handlers are aware that all it takes is one bad sentence or one good sentence to resolve an election," said Jim Lehrer, anchor of PBS's "NewsHour."

Some highlights underscore that point.

The first televised debate is perhaps the most famous of them all. Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy met in a Chicago studio on Sept. 26, 1960, both sides believing they had something to gain by debating.

Everyone remembers not what was said, but who won the image battle.
Kennedy wore a dark suit, wore makeup and appeared presidential. Nixon, by contrast, looked like a guy who just got caught shoplifting. He wore no makeup, had a 5 o'clock shadow, was recovering from the flu and had lost weight and suffered from a knee injury. He appeared to be
sweating profusely. Many think it was the turning point in Kennedy's campaign.

From 1960 to 1976, no presidential debates took place. Not surprisingly, Nixon avoided debates in 1968 and vetoed repeal of the equal time provision in 1970. Finally in 1976, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford met for three debates. The debates were dominated by Ford's statement that Eastern Europe was not under Soviet control.

"There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration," Ford said, in response to a question. "I don't believe ... that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of these countries is independent, autonomous, it has its own territorial integrity, and the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union."

In response Carter said he'd like to see Ford "convince the Polish-Americans and the Czech-Americans and the Hungarian-Americans in this country that those countries don't live under the domination and supervision of the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain."

When Carter and Reagan met in 1980, the Republican challenger was a clear winner. To Carter's attack that he would cut Medicare, he quipped, "There you go again." And in his closing remarks, Reagan asked, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" a phrase that struck a chord with voters.

When George Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis met in 1988, the highlight of the debate was a question posed by CNN's Bernard Shaw: "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"

Dukakis, an opponent of the death penalty, responded: "No, I don't, Bernard. And I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime..."

His passionless response to the question apparently didn't set well with voters, and while Bush didn't perform well either, he didn't have to.

The 1992 debate was unusual in that it featured three candidates: George Bush, Bill Clinton and H. Ross Perot. A poll conducted by CNN/USA TODAY found that of those watching, 47 percent rated Perot the winner, 30 percent voted Clinton and 16 percent voted for Bush.

But Perot dropped out of the race, then reentered it, diminishing his popularity in the process.

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore and then Texas governor George W. Bush debated. According to published accounts, the debate became a judgment of style over substance. Gore audibly sighed several times during Bush's answers. Some analysts said, Gore forfeited the aura of his position and came across as petulant and petty. Gore did better in later debates but never shook the early reviews.

Just for some perspective, the most famous debates of the pre-broadcast era are the senatorial debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in 1858. Douglas agreed to the joint appearances only after Lincoln followed him around the state, making comments from the audience.

The debates were considered a major success. Kathleen Hall Jamieson wrote in her book

"Presidential Debates:" "They were orderly and closely attended. Both advocates were serious and articulate. They addressed themselves to a discreet set of political concerns. The debates advanced the issues, illuminating the areas of both agreement and disagreement."

We can only hope this year's debates will meet that standard.

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