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New Book Discussion -- Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future

April 01, 2008 // 4:00pm5:30pm
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President John F. Kennedy said that had he not participated in the 1960 televised debate against Richard M. Nixon, he would not have been elected. Drawing on that example as an indication of the importance of presidential debates, Newton Minow, speaking at a Director's Forum cosponsored by the Division of United States Studies, noted that there have nonetheless been only nine such debates in American history. Minow, who has played a role in every Presidential debate since the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon appearance, drew on his and Craig LaMay's Inside the Presidential Debates to discuss the genesis of the enterprise, its contributions to the democratic process, and its future role.

In spite of the critical success of the 1960 Presidential debate, another debate did not take place until 1976. Minow explained that Congress' suspended the "Equal Time" law to allow for the 1960 debate but did not renew the suspension for some years thereafter. In 1976 the League of Women Voters, after successfully lobbying Congress to suspend the law once again, drew on Minow's help to organize the debate between Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. The Commission on Presidential Debates, an independent, not-for-profit entity that Minow persuaded the Democratic and Republican parties to establish, became the primary organizer of the debates beginning in 1988. Twenty years later, the Commission has weathered criticism and legal challenges, and the debates have been institutionalized as part of the campaign process. No qualifying candidate, whether nominated by one of the two major parties or running on an independent line with at least 15 percent public support, would dare to refuse to participate.

The Commission has not satisfied all concerns about the Presidential debate process, but it has handled the process as well as or better than other countries in the world. Craig LaMay spoke of problems in other countries where the press turns the debates into political theatre or incumbents refuse to participate. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and former President Vladimir Putin of Russia refused to engage in public debate with their opponents prior to their most recent Presidential elections. In Britain, the main Presidential candidates do not debate one another; instead, each candidate is televised while being interviewed in depth by a journalist. The American presidential debate process, though imperfect, LaMay said, does offer the public the opportunity to see the candidates in person and learn about their views and abilities.

Elizabeth Bumiller commented that she does not consider it a bad thing to have the debates become "political theatre," because the unscripted nature of the debates provide the electorate with an opportunity to see the candidates in important moments. Bumiller emphasized the benefit of having journalists as well as citizens pose questions during the debates. Journalists, who have been covering the campaigns for months, are educated about the candidates and the issues. They can provide the kind of intense follow-up questions that can make the debates more interesting and more revealing of the candidates' knowledge and opinions.

Michael Beschloss agreed that the debates give the American public a better chance to get to know the candidates. At the same time, the debates can permit small moments or factors to have too great an influence over the public's perceptions. A bad makeup job, for example, can leave a lasting poor impression of a candidate. One bad performance can also potentially ruin a candidacy. Beschloss wondered if we should not increase the number of debates to mitigate these possibilities. Minow agreed with the suggestion, saying that the more debates, the better, because television is the best possible medium through which the electorate in this large nation can have a shared experience.

Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr., co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, commented from the audience that the electorate is lucky to get even three debates. A major reason is that the debates freeze campaigns for a good three to four days beforehand, so that the candidates can prepare, and for some time thereafter, so that they can respond to the media about the debate itself. In addition, the debates, which always take place in autumn, must compete with the NFL and other programs on primetime television. Beschloss then asked whether a television debate would have screened out an awkward Abraham Lincoln. Minow responded that he gives the American public more credit than that and believes that the public would judge the candidate not so much on looks but on the ability and character displayed in a debate.

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