Debates aren't a real test

You remember, of course, the first-ever presidential debate. No, not Lincoln-Douglas - that was for senator.

It was Gov. Tom Dewey of New York and Harold Stassen of Minnesota, running for the Republican presidential nomination in 1948 to oppose President Truman. It was on the radio, television being in its infancy.

Truman wouldn't dream of debating Dewey, it being thought that a joint appearance with the incumbent gave a leg up to the challenger.

Despite this, Vice President Richard Nixon agreed in 1960 to meet Sen. John Kennedy three times. Nixon was convinced he was a television star from his "Checkers speech" in 1956 that saved his place on the Eisenhower ticket.

But, debating Kennedy was a big mistake. Hearing the debate on radio in Germany, I thought Nixon had done well, but I didn't see what 75 million Americans saw - a pallid vice president with five-o'clock shadow and a handsome young senator.

President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 and President Nixon in 1972 would not debate their opponents. So, next was the unelected President Ford against the little-known ex-governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. Ford blew it in one confused answer to a question about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.

President Carter debated former Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1980 before 100 million TV watchers, and that was a mistake. Television was made for Reagan, who could carry the day with a single quip like, "There you go again."

The same with President Reagan against Walter Mondale in 1984. The winning Reagan line came when Reagan was asked if he was too old to be president. He said he didn't want to "exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."

In 1988, Michael Dukakis against Vice President George Bush muffed a tough question about what he would do if his wife was raped and murdered.

In 1992, billionaire Ross Perot joined President Bush and Gov. Bill Clinton for three debates, and Bush, with his stammers, his grimaces, and looking at his watch, was accounted the loser.

Two debates didn't help Robert Dole against Clinton in 1996.

And so now the show goes on, the two Democrats, the six Republicans, no longer commanding vast television audiences.

Maybe the heyday of the TV debate is winding down. And maybe that's for the better.

When you see how many debates were won on quips, boners, and attitudes, you may ask whether there isn't some better way to test our leaders.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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