Do the Lincoln-Douglas Debates Really Matter?

Article excerpt

Toward the end of the 2008 presidential primaries, Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton repeatedly challenged Barack Obama to more debates. She would meet him anywhere, any time. I thought she might add what Bert Lahr did when he roared, lionlike, that he would take on anyone with one paw tied behind his back. Clinton and Obama had already had twenty or so debates, and Obama said they could recite each other's lines by then. But she said the new ones she was advocating would be different--they would be Lincoln-Douglas debates. According to the Associated Press, she defined such debates this way: "Just the two of us, going for 90 minutes, asking and answering questions." I do not know if she hoped to wear her adversary down. She would certainly have worn down a modern audience, which does not have the attention span nineteenth-century listeners brought to pre-television speechifying.

A commentator on TV said of Clinton's proposal that you always know when a candidate is losing, since he or she starts talking Lincoln-Douglas. And of course Lincoln was in a losing position when he asked Douglas to debate him. He ended up losing, too--but that was a different story, when senators were indirectly elected.

Clinton was also using Lincoln's strategy of making a nuisance of himself. He trailed Douglas around, answering his speeches and getting the last word in forum after forum. Lincoln described his own action in the subsequent debates as "traveling ... and speaking at the same places with Judge Douglas on subsequent days" (132). (1) It was not the most dignified way to force his opponent's hand--in fact, the Chicago Times famously mocked the spectacle of Lincoln "hanging at the outskirts of Douglas's meetings, begging the people to turn out to hear him"--the paper said he would get a bigger crowd if he trailed behind a traveling circus. (2)

The first modern presidential debates took place in 1960 between Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon. Afterward, people wondered why Nixon, who began in the lead, gave Kennedy a platform--it was a mistake Nixon would not repeat in his successful runs for the presidency in 1968 and 1972. But in 1960 Nixon thought he was the superior debater--he had successfully traded barbs with Khrushchev in his Moscow "kitchen debate." He believed he could show greater experience and depth of knowledge against the comparative newcomer.

In fact, much of the first debate turned on physical appearance--Nixon looked sickly and harried against the more rested and confident Kennedy. One wonders who would have won the appearance contest in 1858--Douglas, short and round as a keg, with windmill gesturing, and a resonant baritone voice he had to push toward hoarseness to be heard, or the lanky and collapsible Lincoln, with an awkward immobility, using a shrill tenor voice that carried better in the open air.

But in fact the modern presidential debates were not born from the Lincoln-Douglas format at all, but from "Meet the Press," from grilling by journalists. That is why modern debates are remembered best for gaffes, such as Gerald Ford saying Poland had a free government, and Dan Quayle rashly comparing himself to John Kennedy--or for prepared one-liners, such as Mondale asking "Where's the beef," or Reagan promising not to take advantage of his foe's youth.

Misguided attempts to compare modern so-called debates with what took place in 1858 hide the really interesting fact about the latter. It was a sui generis event, without successors, but also without predecessors. Of course, there had been earlier debates in the nineteenth century, important ones in the Congress, religious ones between famous preachers, amateur ones at schools and lyceums. But using full-fledged debate as a campaign tool was a new idea, and Lincoln should be given credit as its inventor. That is what sets the 1858 debates apart. It is a myth that they sustained an unusually high level of thought and delivery. …