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William Rivers Pitt: A Proper Debate

A Proper Debate

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Tuesday 28 September 2004


"Bush and Kerry have agreed to three debates. The first debate will cover the 1960s and the second debate the early '70s, and in the third debate if there's time, some topical issues."

- Jay Leno

After months of negotiation and public positioning, the 2004 Presidential debate season is upon us. The first debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry will take place this Thursday in Coral Gables, Florida. The second debate will be held on October 8th in St. Louis, and the third will take place on October 13th in Tempe. A single debate between Dick Cheney and John Edwards will be held on October 5th in Cleveland.

The premise for Presidential debate, strangely enough, was established in a race for the Illinois Senate in 1858. Congressman Abraham Lincoln squared off against Senator Stephen Douglas in seven separate encounters, each lasting three hours. The format would be considered daunting by today's desiccated standards: The first candidate spoke for one hour, the second for an hour and a half, and the first again replying for half an hour. The candidates alternated going first. The Lincoln-Douglas debates became the gold standard for the exchange of ideas and ideals between those seeking public office.

Other Presidential debates over the years have likewise come to stand as exemplars of how it should be done. One in particular, however, stands as a cautionary tale for our modern situation.

On September 26, 1960, the youthful and inexperienced Senator John Kennedy faced Vice President Richard Nixon in the first nationally televised debate. Kennedy, tanned and handsome, was a stark contrast to a sweating, blue-chinned Nixon. The television was not kind to the Vice President, and the television audience believed Kennedy emerged the victor of their exchange. This was a stunning upset; Nixon was an old political cat by 1960, well-versed in both foreign and domestic policy. Kennedy, by comparison, was a rookie whose presence in national politics had only just begun.

Here's the catch: Most Americans who heard the debate on the radio believed Nixon won the debate hands down.

The 1960 debate between Kennedy and Nixon offered America its first lesson in the wide gap between reality and television. Nixon did not lose that televised debate because his arguments were poor, or because he made the kind of incomprehensible blunder that Ford made against Carter in 1976. He lost because his suit did not match the studio background, because his shave was unable to overcome the darkness of his 5-o'clock shadow, because he was getting over the flu and the studio lights made him sweat profusely. In other words, he lost because he did not look good on TV.

Notwithstanding any hindsight comparisons of the character of Nixon and Kennedy, the fact that television played such an important role in determining who would be President in 1960 is an unfortunate reality which has only grown more dire as the years have passed. Style trumped substance, appearance trumped policy in that debate, and thus rose a new power in American politics. Both Lincoln and Douglas would have been appalled to see it, and would now be disgusted to see just how far the standards they set have fallen.

Not since those slavery debates of 1856 has so much depended upon the outcome of Presidential debates. The three exchanges to come in the next few weeks take place amid a disastrous war in Iraq, a war in Afghanistan that is failing because of the war in Iraq, a budget deficit that has exploded due to war expenditures and a tax policy tilted to favor the super-rich, a continuing struggle against the actual perpetrators of the September 11 attacks, a continuing search for Osama bin Laden in particular, a homeland security situation that is anything but secure, a boiling rage against America in the Muslim world, and the savaging of our reputation among nations that once stood as trusted and dependable allies. This is a profoundly abridged list of the issues which face us in November.

There is no way to avoid the power of television in this matter. It is what it is. We can only demand, therefore, that the media outlets responsible for running these debates maintain the air of decorum required of the moment. We can only demand that the issues discussed reflect the seriousness of the situation our nation finds itself in. We can only demand that the inane peripheral issues which have thus far dominated the mainstream television news coverage of the campaigns to date be left aside in favor of the substance required. Finally, we can only demand that the post-debate coverage on the networks avoid the lowball blather which has too often become the scale upon these events are weighed.

It falls to Jim Lehrer of PBS, Charles Gibson of ABC, Bob Schieffer of CBS and Gwen Ifill of PBS, who will moderate these debates, to represent us all properly. It falls to Fox, ABC and NBC, the networks broadcasting these debates, to keep the discussions which will precede and then follow the debates on a track that properly reflects the import of the events. It falls to the Gallup Organization, which for some strange reason has been allowed to choose the 'undecided voters' that will participate in the second debate's Town Hall format, to choose wisely and well.

Finally, it falls to the American people entire to expect and demand high standards and high dialogue from the candidates, and from the media representatives who will bring their exchanges to us. Write these organizations and let them know that you will be watching, and that you expect and demand the best they have to offer.


William Rivers Pitt is the senior editor and lead writer for truthout. He is a New York Times and international bestselling author of two books - 'War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know' and 'The Greatest Sedition is Silence.'

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