Presidential Debates: Journalists Keep Out

HARVARD has come up with a plan that will help us know the presidential candidates so well we will probably all gag before the 1992 campaign concludes.The proposal calls for nine 90-minute programs devoted to the presidential campaign on each of the nine Sunday nights before the election. That means the programs would start even before Labor Day, on Sept. 5, 1992. There would be two presidential debates, one vice presidential debate, five live conversations with the candidates on major issues, and, on the last Sunday, closing speeches by the two major parties' nominees. Setting aside for a moment the possibility that the voters would feel like they were being bludgeoned by politics, with people ready to vote for Mickey Mouse if only to get their regular programming back, I have one bias against such a format. Journalists would become just as much a part of the programs as the presidential candidates themselves. All the modern presidential debates, even back to the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960, have been structured around journalists' questions as much as candidates' answers. Frankly, I wish we'd butt out. One of the problems with the modern presidential campaign is that it has become a celebration of the superficial, with photo opportunities and visits to flag factories. Television journalists frame the campaign. With only a few minutes a night to make their reports, these journalists, with the cooperation of candidates, set the stage for the sound-bite shallowness of the campaigns. There has to be an alternative, and Harvard's plan is a start. But if I had a choice, I would either have debates with ordinary people asking the questions, or better yet, sponsor a debate with as little structure as possible. Let the candidates have at each other. During the 1988 presidential campaign I worked for the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, a newspaper located in Massachusetts but with a substantial circulation in New Hampshire. There were 13 presidential candidates on the Democratic and Republican sides. The editor devised a citizens panel of ordinary people and invited the candidates to answer their questions. The paper promised the candidates that their answers would be edited as little as possible. The citizens panel consisted of a policewoman, a 12-year-old boy, a teacher, a retiree - you get the idea. The candidates loved it. We loved it. The panelists' questions were better than those of most journalists because their world view was less skewed. They weren't a part of the campaign process, they were just folks. The classic model for a campaign was the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. The forum was not a presidential campaign, but a campaign for US Senate between Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. It became a debate on the morality of slavery. The debates had a simple format. One candidate would speak for an hour, the other would issue a 90-minute rebuttal, and the first speaker would get the platform for the final 30 minutes. There was no stilted structure to get in the way. The candidates really went after one another. But what I like best about the debates is that they did not simply deliver the message the audience wanted to hear. At a debate in southern Illinois, Lincoln, knowing the audience was filled with pro-slavery advocates from nearby Kentucky, addressed the crowd: "Slavery is wrong, morally and politically.... The issue between you and me, as I understand, is that I think slavery is wrong, and ought not to be outspread, and you think it is right, and ought to be extended and perpetrated.... You ought to nominate for the next presidency my distinguished friend, Judge Douglas, in all that there is no real difference between you and him." Even more than 130 years later, the Lincoln-Douglas debates make great reading. In "The Life and Works of Abraham Lincoln," published in 1907, two of the 10 volumes are devoted to the debates. What struck me is a short introduction written by Robert Allyn, who witnessed some of the debates: "Mr. Douglas was aggressive, confident in himself, and evidently bent upon crushing his opponent. Mr. Lincoln seemed at first too modest and undemonstrative. "But as he went on and forgot himself, ... he rose in dignity.... He was lost in the grandeur of the cause, and stood unselfishly for the rights of all men, in all ages." Modern presidential debates, presided over by journalists, afford little scope for such grandeur.

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