Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future

Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future

Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future

Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future

Synopsis

Newton Minow's long engagement with the world of television began nearly fifty years ago when President Kennedy appointed him chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. As its head, Minow would famously dub TV a "vast wasteland," thus inaugurating a career dedicated to reforming television to better serve the public interest. Since then, he has been chairman of PBS and on the board of CBS and elsewhere, but his most lasting contribution remains his leadership on televised presidential debates. He was assistant counsel to Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson when Stevenson first proposed the idea of the debates in 1960; he served as cochair of the presidential debates in 1976 and 1980; and he helped create and is currently vice chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has organized the debates for the last two decades. Written with longtime collaborator Craig LaMay, this fascinating history offers readers for the first time a genuinely inside look into the origins of the presidential debates and the many battles- both legal and personal- that have determined who has been allowed to debate and under what circumstances. The authors do not dismiss the criticism of the presidential debates in recent years but do come down solidly in favor of them, arguing that they are one of the great accomplishments of modern American electoral politics. As they remind us, the debates were once unique in the democratic world, are now emulated across the globe, and they offer the public the only real chance to see the candidates speak in direct response to one another in a discussion of major social, economic, and foreign policy issues. Looking to the challenges posed by third-party candidates and the emergence of new media such as YouTube, Minow and LaMay ultimately make recommendations for the future, calling for the debates to become less formal, with candidates allowed to question each other and citizens allowed to question candidates directly. They also explore the many ways in which the Internet might serve to broaden the debates' appeal and informative power. Whether it's Clinton or Obama vs. McCain, Inside the Presidential Debates will be welcomed in 2008 by anyone interested in where this crucial part of our democracy is headed- and how it got there.

Excerpt

In 1986 the Twentieth Century Fund needed someone to lead a study and a national conference on presidential debates. A program officer at the Fund wrote to the acclaimed presidential historian and journalist Theodore White seeking advice about Newton Minow, who had been suggested for the job. Was Minow “knowledgeable about and influential in this area?” the program officer asked. “Does he have a good grasp of the policy issues involved, and can he render those issues intelligible to a general audience?”

White wrote back, “That's equivalent to asking whether Pavarotti can sing, Horowitz can play the piano or Isaac Stern the violin. Of all those interested in the central role of the presidential debates in our election campaigns, I know of no one more influential than Newton Minow.”

Newton Minow's place as a preeminent leader in U.S. communications history and policy is impossible to overstate. He is perhaps best known as the young Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman who, in 1961, challenged the nation's broadcasters to rescue the promise of television from the “vast wasteland” many felt it had become—a phrase both poetic and biting enough to have permanently entered the public lexicon. Mr. Minow's tenure as chairman of the FCC under the administration of President John F. Kennedy was notable, however, for much more than his trenchant commentary. It was marked by successful legislative efforts to promote several landmark undertakings including the 1961 All Channels Act, which mandated UHF reception for all television sets and hence greatly increased the number of television channels available to Americans. Minow was also the driving force behind what eventually became the International Telecommunications Satellite . . .

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