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.
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.
Once again, the debate sponsors, this time the League of Women Voters, suggested that the candidates put questions to each other, at least for part of the time allotted. Once again, the candidates refused. Once again, the format was the ``parallel press conference,'' questioning by a panel of journalists. And once again, there was criticism of the format. Wrote one analyst, ``the reporters made no real contribution.''
In 1980, disputes about the debates eventually became a dominant issue in the campaign, overshadowing the debates themselves. Again, the League of Women Voters was the sponsor. This time the issue of third party and independent candidates, a moderate controversy in the 1976 debates, took center stage. John Anderson met the League's criteria of legal eligibility, ballot eligibility and a 15 percent rating in the public opinion polls. The League invited him to appear. Jimmy Carter refused to participate with John Anderson; Ronald Reagan refused to participate without him. Reagan debated Mr. Anderson without Mr. Carter. When Anderson fell below the 15 percent mark, Carter debated Reagan. By then, it was barely one week before the election.
Again the format included questions posed by a panel of journalists, although this time, both candidates answered the same questions. Representatives of the candidates had a role in selecting the journalists - over League disapproval of this process.
Four years later, this point became the major controversy of the 1984 debates. The League submitted a list of 12 journalists to the candidates. All but three were rejected. As the dispute heated, CBS, The New York Times, and The Washington Post decided not to participate because of the candidates' veto.
Criticism of the ``parallel press conference'' continued. One panelist said, ``It would be better for the candidates to be alone on the stage with one smart moderator to pose questions and act as traffic cop and lie detector.''
With the Republican and Democratic parties as sponsors, the issue of third party and independent candidates will not take center stage. Now is the time to be innovative in establishing the format of the 1988 debates. We propose an ``Oregon-style'' debate, with some questions posed by voter groups, students, state legislators, mayors, and governors, and the public at large. What about questions prepared by former Presidents Carter, Ford, and Reagan? Past debates have been held in historic locations. What about debates in a factory, on a farm, in an inner-city school auditorium, a national park? A debate on a single issue? What about the candidates responding back and forth, Oxford-style?
A year remains before the 1988 presidential debates. New, fresh thinking is needed to encourage better presidential debates. The Lincoln-Douglas debates were arranged by the political parties in such a way as to give the voters insight into the candidates' intellects and characters. Now 130 years later, we will have at least three debates involving the presidential candidates, and one for the vice-presidential candidates. This time, journalists should cover the debates and not confuse their roles by serving as participants. Lively new formats should be tried, with time for thoughtful answers.
As Theodore White observed, ``The nationally televised debate is where, finally, the struggle over image and issue links. There, the two candidates not only must perform, but must explain.''
Newton N. Minow is former cochairman of the presidential debates project and his daughter, Nell, is a Washington-based lawyer and writer.