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Let's improve presidential debates

By Newton N. Minow and Nell Minow / August 20, 1987

IN 1988, the United States will participate in the first presidential election in 20 years with no incumbent running for reelection. The race is wide open. The 15 candidates running have widely diverging views on taxes, aid to the contras, the deficit and the role of the National Security Council. On one issue all agree: Each has made a commitment to participate in televised debates. The Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, sponsored by the television networks, were heralded as the beginning of a new era in presidential politics. But no presidential debates were organized in the next three elections. In 1976, 1980, and 1984, there were debates, sponsored by the League of Women Voters. This year, for the first time, the Democratic and Republican National Committees have joined to sponsor next year's debates.

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In the past, whether debates would be held was undetermined until after the candidates had been nominated. Legal tangles over the suspension of the equal-time law (required for debates that did not include all third-, fourth-, and fifth-party candidates) scuttled the debates for the elections of 1964, 1968, and 1972. The three elections after that were plagued by debates about the debates. Candidates argued about format, selection of questioners, and participation of third-party candidates. Today, the declared candidates' commitments and the parties' sponsorship provide a historic opportunity for innovation.

Of the four presidential debates since 1960, all were subject to disputes over format and production values. Before the first debates, Richard Nixon made it clear that he was adamantly opposed to candidate reaction shots, while John F. Kennedy favored them. Mr. Nixon asked that there be no left profile shots and no shots of a candidate wiping perspiration from his face. Mr. Kennedy complained that too many lights were on him and that the studio was too cold. Both men felt that they had been sabotaged by the networks - and the networks felt sabotaged by the candidates.

Don Hewitt, the CBS producer of the first debate, expressed reservations about the network's role as a sponsor and producer. He said, ``I realized that the most important function of my job as producer was not to be a producer, in other words, not to make a television program out of this.'' An independent study found the debates emphasized the peculiar institutional position of the networks in acting as sponsors.

For example, the networks vigorously advocated an ``Oregon-style'' debate, in which the candidates question each other. Both candidates quickly vetoed this suggestion. The networks rejected Nixon's suggestion of questions from the public, or from representatives of interest groups. The format agreed upon set the standard for all subsequent debates - questions from journalist panels.

This format is unsatisfactory. ABC refused to refer to the Nixon-Kennedy appearances as debates at all, calling them ``joint appearances'' and ``face-to-face.'' One of the panelists said, ``The format of the Great Debate was neither fish nor fowl, not permitting the relentless interrogation of the `Meet the Press' type quiz show or the clash of ideas that can occur in a genuine debate.'' This complaint would continue in all the subsequent debates.

But there were no debates for the next 16 years. Finally, in 1976, debates were held, when, for the first time, an incumbent President agreed to debate. Gerald Ford had never appeared on a general election ballot outside his Michigan congressional district. Jimmy Carter, although way ahead in the polls, was not well known to the general public. Both thought it would be in their interest to debate, and both were right: Opinion research revealed that voters gained a greater familiarity with the candidate's positions after the debates; the public's perceptions of both candidates improved.