Janet Sheridan: Presidential debates past and present
George Washington never publically debated an opponent. Running unopposed undoubtedly contributed to his silence, but perhaps he didn’t debate because talking for hours with wooden teeth would rub his tongue raw. Whatever the reason, after his fans persuaded him to run for the new presidency, he won two terms. I think the voters elected him because he didn’t subject them to longwinded, cantankerous debates filled with improbable promises and questionable facts.
Lincoln debated, but not as a presidential candidate. Instead, he sparred with Stephen Douglas because they both wanted to be a United States Senator from Illinois.
I doubt the America of today — given its challenged attention span and appetite for reality TV — would have put up with the Lincoln/Douglas debates. The two quarreled for three hours on seven occasions without the comedy supplied by scolding moderators or the bathroom breaks provided by commercials. First one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, and then the other answered for 90 minutes. Finally, the first candidate had a 30-minute last-say. I imagine before the final word was spoken, ladies fainted; men twitched; and dogs howled. Some probably did all three.
Even though Lincoln debated admirably, he wasn’t elected; so he decided to become president instead.
The first presidential debate as we know them took place in 1960, lasted an hour, and attracted 70-million viewers because it was televised. I watched while doing my geometry homework and playing Old Maid with my younger brothers, so I was a distracted viewer at best. But as I recall, the nominees, John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, concentrated on explaining their ideas rather than creating sound bites and forcing confrontations, as is currently popular.
But, much like today, most of the follow-up commentary ignored the candidates’ policies and focused instead on their looks: Kennedy’s youthful tan and easy smile compared to Nixon’s stubbled jowl and abundant sweat. I, too, was impressed with Kennedy’s appearance — but then, unlike David Brinkley and Barbara Walters — I was young and giddy, having only recently emerged from my infatuation with a professional wrestler.
I managed to mature, however, and I now watch the primary and general election debates with more interest in the candidates’ ideas and policies than in their ages or appearance. I also watch with more forgiveness than commentators who react to mistakes large and small with aghast glee. My history of verbal gaffes makes me sympathize with the candidates’ blunders. I know how it feels to be unable to come up with a swift and meaningful response, to tell a joke that falls flat, to wear tight shoes that give me a pinched expression, to forget important details like my name, where I am, and why.
The media also expresses impossible expectations for the debaters: We’re told that a candidate needs to act more presidential and, at the same time, that he needs to attack his opponents more aggressively. Another presidential hopeful is praised as someone you’d like to have a beer with and then criticized for not talking at length about his policies. One analyst says a female candidate shouldn’t play the woman card, while another complains she wore an outfit she’d worn the previous week. A news anchor sounds off about the lack of substantive, detailed answers from the candidates as he airs fifteen-second sound bites from each.
I prefer to watch debates and make up my mind about the candidates’ qualifications without being harassed by the opinions of others. Unfortunately, Joel doesn’t seem to care.
Sheridan’s book, “A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns,” is available in Craig at Downtown Books and Steamboat Springs at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore. She also blogs at http://www.auntbeulah.com on Tuesdays.
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