Lincoln and Perot

Bob Dole's bridge to a better America didn't quite go back to the days when even political debates were better. But it's worth remembering that after his fellow Republican Abraham Lincoln's great showing against Democrat Stephen Douglas in seven full-scale debates, Lincoln lost that 1858 election.

Ross Perot is no Lincoln, except that the presidential debate commission expects him to lose also and so invites him to stay home. We hope he wins his suit to join candidates Dole and Clinton in at least the first debate. Ideally, candidate Ralph Nader would be on board, too, for the sake of broadening the dialogue with voters. But that's not going to happen. He can't claim what Perot can - that he has $29 million of our money as taxpayers and we ought to be able to comparison shop what we've bought in relation to the even bigger recipients of our money. Ironically, the fact that Perot got only $29 million is used to prove that he can't win.

Debater Lincoln lost only - only! - an election for the US Senate, but the episode keeps us cool about this year's debate hassle. The substance of the men and their messages will be more important than debater's points scored in setting up arrangements and knocking down opponents.

Yes, even Lincoln had to look at his watch. "He [Douglas] spoke one hour. I an hour-and-a-half, and he replied for half an hour. The order is now reversed. I am to speak an hour, he an hour-and-a-half, and then I..." Zzzzzz.

And Lincoln got up-close and personal when he said Douglas impeached his veracity and so he was not "bound, if I see a truthful ground for it, to keep my hands off of him."

But mostly Lincoln and Douglas discussed such great issues as slavery and freedom, galvanizing huge crowds sans radio, TV, or Internet.

Lincoln showed how a loser could get a bounce from debates. In the 1860 presidential race he defeated his old debating rival. Douglas ran scared, becoming the first major party candidate to go out and campaign.

Could today's candidates learnsomething from those who took a stand on big issues and let others beat the campaign bushes for them? Skepticism can flourish when seekers of the highest office seem to scrabble for votes, hoping that some line sticks to the wall, or sticks the other candidate.

"It really hurts me very much to suppose that I have wronged anybody on earth," said Lincoln in 1858. Not a bad attitude for debaters any year.

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