There We Go Again: In Their Surprisingly Short History, Presidential Debates Have Never Lived Up to Our Expectations-Yet They've Always Proved Invaluable

By Golway, Terry | American Heritage, August-September 2004 | Go to article overview

There We Go Again: In Their Surprisingly Short History, Presidential Debates Have Never Lived Up to Our Expectations-Yet They've Always Proved Invaluable


Golway, Terry, American Heritage


IN THE COMING MONTHS GEORGE W. BUSH, JOHN KERRY, AND THEIR running mates will submit themselves to a relatively new ritual in American presidential politics: a series of face-to-face debates. Broadcast on television and radio throughout the world, the presidential debates are the political world's equivalent of football's Super Bowl, with all the attendant media hype but no lewd halftime show to overshadow the proceedings.

Young American voters--to use a phrase that some pollsters regard as an oxymoron--might be surprised to learn that once upon a time presidential candidates campaigned quite deliberately on parallel tracks. Their paths never crossed, save on occasions like the exclusive Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner in New York, when they exchanged not ideas but witticisms, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. In fact the very notion of campaigning for the Presidency, never mind debating an opponent, would have struck some candidates in the early nineteenth century as undignified, and that was long before Bill Clinton discussed his choice of underwear in 1992.

By the middle of the twentieth century, of course, presidential candidates routinely submitted themselves to the indignities of the campaign trail. But while they no longer could avoid direct appeals for votes, at least they could avoid talking directly to their opponents. Most people believe all of that changed in 1960, when John Kennedy and Richard Nixon famously engaged in the first debates between presidential candidates of opposing parties (the 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were in a race for the Senate). While there's little question that the 1960 debates were historic, they did not, in fact, establish a precedent or "change the face of American politics forever," as some have suggested. Sixteen years and three elections would pass before presidential candidates faced each other again.

As a matter of fact, the initial Kennedy-Nixon debate on September 26, 1960, was not the first face-to-face meeting between presidential candidates. Twelve years earlier, in 1948, up to 80 million people had tuned in their radios to hear the Republican rivals Thomas E. Dewey of New York and Harold Stassen of Minnesota debate each other in Portland before the Oregon presidential primary. In 1956 the two leading Democratic candidates, Adlai Stevenson of Illinois and Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, had had at each other in Miami before the Florida primary. That debate was televised nationally.

These early debates, between primary opponents and between Kennedy and Nixon, shared one telling characteristic: None featured a sitting President. Not until Gerald Ford met Jimmy Carter in Philadelphia in 1976 did an incumbent President stand face to face with a challenger. For that reason, the Ford-Carter debates of 1976 arguably were more historic and more precedent-shattering than the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960. For the first time in American history, a President deigned to exchange views with an opponent, and perhaps it was no accident that it took a modest man like Gerald Ford, who had won the Presidency by appointment rather than election, to commit such an act of lese majesty.

Challengers long before Carter had tried to goad their incumbent rivals into venturing out of the Rose Garden, but none succeeded. Wendell Willkie challenged Franklin Roosevelt to a debate in 1940, and Barry Goldwater did the same with Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Both were brushed aside. Presidents simply didn't debate, you see. Besides, it was in the interest of neither Roosevelt nor Johnson to be seen on the same stage as their underdog challengers. As any political consultant will tell you, there's a built-in stature gap between a sitting President and a challenger, no matter how qualified that challenger may be. Descending from the Olympus of the White House to exchange views with a mere candidate is to shrink that gap and immediately give credibility to the challenger. …

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