(Re)made for TV Re-Enactments of Lincoln-Douglas Debates Set for C-Span Stir Passions in Town Sites

Article excerpt

THE CANDIDATES argued for three hours over the most explosive political issue of the day, offering no sound bites, without a spin doctor in sight.

Crowds strained to hear every word - perhaps knowing they were listening to the makings of history.

Now, 136 years after Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas traveled across Illinois arguing about slavery as they campaigned for the U.S. Senate, their debates are to be re-enacted on the medium that reshaped 20th-century politics -television.

The public affairs network C-SPAN celebrates its 15th anniversary beginning on Saturday by showing live re-enactments of the historic Lincoln-Douglas debates from the Illinois towns where they occurred.

Don't expect television that will keep you perched on the edge of your seat. The debates held in Ottawa and six other Illinois towns in the summer and fall of 1858 weren't about womanizing, Supreme Court nominations or abortion.

"These were long, tedious and especially hard to understand," said C-SPAN Chairman Brian Lamb. "But we'll have a lot of fun with call-in shows, showing historical costumes and showcasing these small towns."

The candidates spoke for a total of 21 hours in the seven cities. And the topic was always the same: The expansion of slavery into newly acquired western territories.

"Longer speakers were much more conventional at that time. People's attention spans were trained," said David Zarefsky, a Lincoln-Douglas expert from Northwestern University.

"At the same time, I'm sure not everyone in audience paid attention at all times. They brought picnics, their kids, all things going on that would be distracting."

C-SPAN won't help create the debates - that's up the towns, each of which found funding for the re-enactments. C-SPAN will send only camera crews to the various sites as it would any modern political event.

Even if the debates might seem tedious to 20th century audiences, the long, formal rhetorical jousts were compelling for the 19th century listeners, in part because of the fierce emotion surrounding the debate over slavery.

"It must have been just incredible," said Jim Gayan, a lifelong resident of Ottawa, about 100 miles southwest of Chicago. Gayan is a teacher who's playing Stephen Douglas for the Ottawa re-enactment.

"I can't imagine what it would be like. Maybe if we found out tomorrow that the O.J. Simpson trial was starting in Ottawa. Maybe that would be something like it. …