The great debates: a reminiscence

I always look hard for the house in which I grew up, even though I know it has long since disappeared, swallowed up by a handsome mall. The city hall still stands nearby, where my father once worked when city engineer. With the election in the air, I am once again reminded of going there, along with Dad, to cast my first vote for president in 1936.

But the presidential debates are uppermost in my thinking on this particular day. I'm reminded of how Dad and I debated national issues from the time I was able to grasp what they meant. What a rich experience it was! Hubert Humphrey told me that he, too, debated with his father on the issues of the day and that this had led to his deep interest in government.

As a youngster, I soon learned the basics of debate: First, Dad said, I was to read as much as I possibly could about an issue. And then, thus prepared, I was to state my case with an emphasis on facts and with as little emotion as possible.

Dad also liked chess a lot. He once told me that he thought that the game was helpful for learning analysis and tactics in debate. He taught me chess when I was just starting school. For several years he played with fewer pieces on his side at the start of the game, to give me a chance and to keep up my interest. A father and son become very close over the chess board, particularly during those long, quiet minutes between moves. Also it was great fun!

Humphrey said the big lesson he learned about debating from his father was that there was more than one side to most issues. He said he came to see that most issues were very complex and that it took study to understand these complexities. Also, he added, his debating had left him with less than respect for those in public life who seemed to stay on the surface when analyzing problems and who tried to tell people there were simple answers for difficult problems.

High school debating and public speaking were highly regarded school activities when I was young. A sister was adept at it, the captain of her debating team. I would listen for hours as she practiced. And then I had my turn at all this when I got to high school. I count it as a most important part of my education.

But when my own children reached high school, they found that debating just wasn't being done. When I asked one headmaster why there was no debating at his excellent school, his answer was that there was a growing feeling among educators that there were real dangers in debating: That having to learn to debate on either side of an issue could cause some young people to always be wishy-washy, to never learn what their own deep convictions really were.

To that, I say ''Poppycock''! Now does that assertion sound as though I have been so handicapped by looking at all sides of issues that I can't call a spade a spade or a poppycock a poppycock?

Indeed, it seems to be that the practice of examining the full spectrum of views and information about a subject should be of inestimable help in shaping firm conclusions and in helping an individual to know himself and where he wants to stand on life's biggest problems. It should strengthen one's backbone.

In any event, I'm thinking of all these things here in the aftermath of the last Reagan-Mondale debate.

What a rare opportunity the voters were given to be able to listen to their candidates. Oh, I've heard all the complaints. They weren't really debating; they weren't allowed to go after each other directly. Also, there were questions about whether TV appearance and style were winning out over substance.

But let's look at the other side. Perhaps it is too obvious a point: But when was the last time the Soviet leaders debated publicly among themselves - on TV for the benefit of the Russian people?

Obviously, despite all the criticisms and knitpicking about these presidential debates, they are efforts toward educating and informing the public that can only take place in a free society.

Dad always made it clear that he wanted me to make up my own mind on issues and candidates. And he, himself, was still examining national and world issues and public officials when on his 104th, and final, birthday, President Ford phoned to wish him well.

Dad started out by saying, ''Mr. President, I'm having a little difficulty getting a fix on you.'' Dad liked Ford, for the most part. But he was evidently still watching the President closely. Obviously, he was letting it be known that he was involved in an inner debate over what Ford was doing and where he was going. Dad told me that he felt better about the President after the call. But he was still keeping an eye on him.

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