"I Paid for This Microphone!"
America's great presidential debates and the big arguments behind them.
In 1976, both major party candidates finally agreed to duel. President Gerald Ford, never elected even to the vice presidency, needed to prove his legitimacy, while Jimmy Carter, an obscure Georgia governor, hoped for a stature boost by appearing beside the president. The League of Women Voters, which that spring had organized several primary debates and circulated petitions urging general-election debates, supervised. Using the Kennedy-Nixon format of podiums and a press panel, Ford and Carter met three times and their running mates (Bob Dole and Walter Mondale) once (a first). Despite some famous blunders—Ford's declaration that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe"—they garnered positive notices for reviving the democratic spirit.
Since then, every election has included debates, but popular interest has flagged. Candidates quickly mastered the routine, rehearsing every detail down to the punch lines. ("Where's the beef?" "I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." And, of course, Ronald Reagan's, "I paid for this microphone!") Viewers wound up dwelling disproportionately on the inevitable gaffes, the only moments that provided amusement or authenticity.
Little variation enlivened the debates in the '80s and '90s. The in 1988 from the League of Women Voters by the Committee on Presidential Debates (run by ex-heads of the Democratic and Republican parties) didn't affect their quality. Nor did the use of a single moderator as compared with a panel.
In 1992, the debates were rejuvenated by the addition of third-party candidate and first-class prattler Ross Perot, as well as by a "town hall" format in which "ordinary citizens" asked the questions. (This was Clinton's idea, shrewdly designed to highlight his empathy.) Viewership soared. But in 1996, the audience lobbed up softballs as the candidates played home-run derby—and the debates sank back into dreariness.
If history suggests any common ingredients for keeping audiences interested (and I'm not sure it does), I might pinpoint two: 1) a tight race, such as we witnessed in 1960, 1976, and 1992, which makes the debates matter; and 2) some element of novelty, which keeps the candidates from resorting to boilerplate. Especially now, when both candidates' every gesture seems scripted, we yearn for the unprogrammed selves that were at least glimpsed in Lincoln-Douglas, Dewey-Stassen, Nixon-Kennedy, and Ford-Carter. Each of these debates promised something unexpected to intrigue the audience.
However transparent his recent debate-dodging, George W. Bush is right to suggest that the standard, on-the-stage-behind-the-podium format shouldn't be automatically embraced. Unfortunately, his solution, to turn the proceedings over to the backslapping Larry King and Tim Russert—who for all his superficial tenacity never truly defies anyone with power—would surely make matters worse.
My solution, which I've detailed on the Tom Paine Web site, would be to replace the pundit-panelists with experts on political and social problems: political theorists, psychoanalysts, educators, economists, perhaps even historians. New questioners would at least add some unpredictability. Others, too, have. Whatever the answer, we should realize it's OK to treat politics as entertainment. The Lincoln-Douglas throngs came to laugh, applaud, and have a good time. Today's candidates might feel free to be spontaneous—and Americans might start to like politics—if we granted that it's supposed to be fun.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.
Photograph of Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy from Corbis.