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Master Debaters

Presidential debate formats have been warped and bent by candidates from Reagan to Ford, from Carter to Mondale.

By the time this is published, Gore and Bush will have slugged it out in the first of three Presidential debates (there's also one veep debate). It was only a few short weeks ago that Dubya gave up his quixotic quest to discuss the issues in an intellectually mushy fashion on "Larry King Live" rather than participate in an actual debate. The Texas governor tried to completely upend the format of the debates, and, fortunately, the public and media shouted him down. As Democratic campaign chairman William Daley said, "No candidate should arrogantly insist on debating only where and when it best suits him."

We agree, but in so pronouncing, Daley ignored the grand tradition of childish tantrums over political debate formats. For example, even after a Presidential debate precedent was seemingly set in 1960, incumbents LBJ and Nixon wimped out and wouldn't even have them for fear of losing ground and support. Subsequently, there was a gap from 1960 to 1976 where there actually weren't debates of any kind. As one might well imagine, this doubtlessly irked challengers Goldwater (1964), Humphrey (1968), and McGovern (1972). The incumbents frankly had everything to lose and nothing to gain by debating, so they didn't bother. Debating hadn't really caught on with the national psyche at that point anyway: even after the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates of the 1858 Illinois senatorial contest, Lincoln never publicly debated again. We concede that the man didn't have much of a chance because he was dead in less than a decade, but it is worth mentioning that public debates intended for a mass audience were relatively unheard of again until 1948.

Even after then, certain rules had to be bent to allow debate coverage. For example, Congress amended the part of the Communications Act that required equal coverage of all candidates in 1959. But what we find interesting is exactly how much control the candidates themselves have had over the format, and how damned petty they can be.

In 1976, when the debates started to resemble what they've become today, broadcasters were denied the right to show audience reaction shots during the debates. Candidate Gerald Ford's camp argued that the broadcasters could editorialize the proceedings by showing snickering audience members or worshipful ones. After the broadcasters deferred (they realized that the candidates could just go home, at which point there would be nothing on TV), the candidates soon recognized exactly how much power they wielded. It all went downhill from there.

Buckling Down

For example, the distance from Carter's and Ford's respective belt buckles was measured and podiums adjusted so that they had equal torso exposure on television. Issues of height also pervaded the 1984 debates (in particular, the diminutive Geraldine Ferraro needed to be set up against the taller George Bush) and the 1988 debates (Michael Dukakis was similarly vertically-challenged). In 1980, Carter agreed to debate Edward Kennedy only after the incumbent President's standing in the polls started to drop. The President, however, swiftly cancelled when Kennedy found himself being called "an American prophet" by Islamic militants for his refusal to support the Shah of Iran: it was clear to Carter that debates were no longer needed.

There was still the question of debates between the major party candidates. The League of Women Voters, already having sponsored some of the primary debates, offered to sponsor the 1980 Presidential one. However, the League extended an invitation to third-party candidate John Anderson, whose onetime showing of 20% in the polls was considered to be indicative of "significant voter interest". Carter obstinately refused to show at such an event, prompting the League to plan to leave an empty chair on stage in his place. The Carter camp threatened to sue; the League relented, and petty squabbling ensued.

Said Lee Hanna, the debate co-producer, "The candidates' representatives were pathetic in their desire to protect what they saw as their candidates' interests. The negotiations were exercises in frustration and hilarity." Candidates first wanted to question each other rather than receive questions from a moderator, then flip-flopped their position. Candidates were given veto power over panelist members. In its zeal to perform well in the debates, the Reagan camp swiped Carter's briefing papers. George Will assessed Reagan's debate performance as "thoroughbred" on a news program without divulging that he had actually coached Reagan for that very debate. For its part, the Carter team allegedly planted a staffer to witness in the Reagan-Anderson debate disguised in a wig (a charge she later denied).

The League of Their Own Bows Out

The League of Women Voters, sponsoring these debates, tried in vain to maintain some semblance of control over the format. It was consistently slapped in the face by bratty candidates and parties who wanted their own way. Before long the Democrats and Republicans were negotiating with each other rather than the League. The camps haggled over petty details like audience selection and the color of the backdrop, and essentially handed the document to debate sponsors, saying, "Take it or leave it." The League, fed up with this sort of nonsense (they had offered a list of 100 potential panelists, only to see it whittled to 3 acceptable ones by overly picky candidates in 1984), dropped out of the debate process entirely in 1988. Its president said, "We have no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public."

The Gipper
The Gipper

By that point, the debates had largely become an institutionalized part of the American presidential election process. When Reagan, ahead of Mondale by eighteen points, decided to debate him anyway, he dispelled the notion that an incumbent in the catbird seat oughtn't sully himself with such matters. And as the Democrat and Republican parties wanted increased control over the debate process, they founded the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates[1] to essentially replace the League before it even dropped out.

The cynic in us wants to say that direct party control, even bipartisan control, over the debate process is weak and petty and will never expose the hearts of participating candidates. However, this year the CPD announced formats and locations before the parties had selected their nominees (January 6, 2000), and when George W. Bush attempted to soften them up by suggesting he and Al Gore debate (we think this meant "play nice") on "Larry King Live", he was shouted down by the press and the electorate. Indeed, this suggestion damn well may have cost him the election as he battles allegations of a lack of gravitas. What does this mean? Is it possible that, as the debate process seems to now be an integral part of presidential elections, petty concerns won't rule it as much? We hope so. But we're not holding our breath.


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