A resolution. A constructive speech either in favor of or in opposition to the resolution. Evidence supporting contentions in the speech. Direct cross examination of each other. A clash on issues raised. Rebuttal and summary speeches.
All of these are standard fare for high school and college debaters. And nearly none of these will happen on Monday, September 26, when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump meet at Hofstra University in New York for the first of four debates (three Presidential, one Vice Presidential) this fall. The 2016 Commission on Presidential Debates series will begin 56 years to the day after the first-ever televised Presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960.
In fact, virtually all Presidential debates have lacked the elements that comprise a debate. Some news observers and even one of this year’s moderators, Chris Wallace of Fox News, are instead calling these events simultaneous news conferences.
Back in 1960, there were far fewer media choices. Seeing the major candidates standing toe to toe and responding to a reporter’s questions was fresh, new and exciting. About 70 million Americans tuned in on that September night in 1960, the largest audience ever to watch a televised event at the time.
Donald Hewitt of CBS, who produced that first debate, talked about its significance in an interview 40 years later for Joe Garner’s book Stay Tuned. “It was like Miss America. You picked the more attractive of the two men. That’s how Jack Kennedy beat Richard Nixon….,” Hewitt said. “Jack Kennedy making speeches is a bore. Jack Kennedy debating Richard Nixon is an event.”
Even more important, according to Hewitt, was the confluence of political leaders and television executives. The Nixon-Kennedy debates radically transformed the landscape of American politics. “In the middle of this thing, the politicians are looking at the television executives and thinking, those guys have a reach in everybody’s living room,” Hewitt explained. “The television executives are looking at the politicians and saying they are a source of unlimited advertising dollars. That a bottomless pit.”
“That night changed the face of American politics That was the night that television and politics eyed each other, flirted with each other, got engaged, and eventually got married,” Hewitt added. “And because of that you cannot hold office in the USA or even think of running for office unless you’ve got the money to buy television time. Politics in America is now a money game, and it all weaned off the night of the first television debate.”
Hewitt was right. In the 2012 election cycle, candidates for all federal offices in the U.S. spent seven billion dollars on campaign activities. The plurality of those billions were devoted to purchasing television ads. Even with the rise of the internet and mobile media, TV is receiving the lion’s share of campaign dollars. Ask anyone living in a “battleground” state (such as Ohio) what commercials are running on television right now — they’ll tell you.
Here is a link to the video which accompanied the book “Stay Tuned” about the 1960 Presidential debates. You’ll see Walter Cronkite, Hewitt, and — of course — Nixon, Kennedy, and debate moderator Howard K. Smith.
THE NEW NIXON: A notable outcome from first Presidential debates: Richard Nixon abhorred future one-on-one clashes with an opponent as a result of the 1960 election. When he re-entered the political realm and won the Republican Party’s nomination for President in 1968, he eschewed debates and instead produced live “made for television” events called Man in the Arena. Today we would call these programs part political advertisement, part infomercial, and part reality television. It was a precursor to another form of political TV which became quite common in the 21st century, the town hall meeting. Producing Man in the Arenawas a young television expert who had learned his craft with the Mike Douglas show, Roger Ailes.
Ailes selected about 20 “man in the street” panelists for the program, some of whom would ask questions of Nixon and also make brief statements about conditions in America in 1968. Bud Wilkinson, a regular on ABC’s Wide World of Sports and former Hall of Fame college football coach, hosted the program. Nixon and Wilkinson engaged in friendly banter at the beginning of each broadcast. It worked, as viewers came to see Nixon as a fighter for the middle class. In November 1968, Nixon outpolled both Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace to become the 37th president of the U.S.
The New York Times’ Tom Wicker called the Man in the Arena television programs a “masterly new political concept.” The viewing public thought that Nixon was being questioned freely, “while running little risk of a hostile inquiry, a damaging answer, or some other mistake,” Wicker wrote. Nixon would hear nothing of a debate in the 1972 Presidential election. But after Watergate and Nixon’s departure in 1974, there was a consensus among the Republican National Committee and the Democratic Committee that there should be debates. Thus — starting in 1976 — we’ve had at least one debate in every election cycle ever since. It took some time, but the Commission on Presidential Debates was formed in 1987 to “…provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners.” It governs the debates today.
It’s really impossible to prove whether a candidate might win or lose an election as a result of or more Presidential debates. Those conducting polling in 1960 reported that a vast majority of undecided voters that year ended up casting ballots for Kennedy. Yet no one could prove whether the debates tilted a “scale in the minds” in Kennedy’s favor.
Most Presidential debate observers do point to a few poignant moments in debate history. The first was in 1976, when reporter Max Frankel of the New York Times asked a question about US-Soviet Union relations of President Gerald Ford. Frankel was a member of three-reporter panel, plus moderator Pauline Frederick of National Public Radio. It was the second Presidential debate, taking place in San Francisco in October 1976. Ford’s response to Frankel was a gaffe, insisting that Poland was a free nation at the time. It was not, and the misstep might have cost Ford the election. See the clip:
In the first 1984 debate between President Ronald Reagan and former Vice President Walter Mondale, Reagan was hesitant and halting, and looked even older than his 74 years of age. Although Reagan was ahead in the polls, voters were wondering if he was up to four more years of the physical and mental challenges of the Presidency. In the second Presidential debate in Kansas City, the “Great Communicator” masterfully turned reporter Henry Trewhitt of the Baltimore Sun’s question about his age into a response so funny that even Mondale laughed at it. Reagan then paused and reached for his glass of water to let his zinger linger. He won re-election in a landslide the following month. See the clip here:
There was a Cleveland connection to the 1988 Vice Presidential Debate, which was held early in October in Omaha. Northeast Ohio Cong. Dennis Eckart was an “opponent stand in” for the Democratic nominee, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, for practices ahead of the clash. After the debate, Cong. Eckart told local media outlets that, in fact, the Democrats had anticipated that Senator Dan Quayle, Republican VP candidate and Bensten’s opponent, might attempt to compare himself to John Kennedy. Watch Senator Bentson’s double response – first to Quayle’s statement, then to his ‘unfair’ retort afterward:
NOTE: in the 2012 Vice Presidential debate, VP Joe Biden echoed this with a remark to Republican Candidate Rep. Paul Ryan about tax cuts: “Oh, Now You’re Jack Kennedy?”
Here’s a link to a web page explaining the formats which will be used for all four of the presidential debates in September and October 2016:
If you are a teacher in grades 3 to 6, and are planning a lesson in language arts or civics, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library has some great resources on Presidential debates. The link below includes objectives and outcomes, connections to curriculum standards from National Standards for Civics and Government and from NCTE/IRA Standards for the English Language Arts for grades 4, 5, and 6. Here is the link:
Here are some good additional links to lesson plans and resources for many different grade levels:
The link below is a terrific resource for using all aspects of the election in the middle school and high school classroom:
Garner, Joe “Stay Tuned: Television’s Unforgettable Moments,” © 2002 Garner Creative Concepts
For information about the Commission on Presidential Debates, transcripts, video excerpts and more, link here: http://www.debates.org/
Pictures from: History.com and the Reagan Presidential Library