It may seem, at times, that presidential debates are a given, but they are really a recent phenomenon in American politics. Forty–nine years ago today, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon met in the first televised presidential debate in Chicago.
Television was still somewhat primitive in 1960, and the Kennedy–Nixon debates proved to be a split decision. Voters who watched on television thought Kennedy won while those who listened on radio thought Nixon won. The debates received credit, perhaps unfairly, for tipping the balance in what was the closest presidential election of the 20th century.
I have been studying the presidency most of my life, and I recall reading very little about the Kennedy–Nixon debates, except for the conclusion that Kennedy appeared rested and robust while Nixon — who, to be fair, had been hospitalized prior to the first debate — came across as haggard.
Historian Robert Dallek writes, in "An Unfinished Life," that Kennedy was eager to debate Nixon. He wanted to persuade voters that he was not too young or inexperienced, and direct competition with Nixon was the best way to achieve that. On the other hand, President Eisenhower advised Nixon not to debate, reasoning that Nixon already was better known and had eight years of executive experience as Ike's vice president.
"But Nixon relished confrontations with adversaries and, remembering his successful appearance before the TV cameras in the 1952 campaign (his Checkers speech — in response to allegations of accepting illegal gifts — was the most successful use of television by an American politician to that date), he agreed to four debates."
Nixon was elected president twice, in 1968 and 1972, but he never debated his opponents again. The memory of the experience of 1960 remained fresh in his mind, perhaps because the image of him that viewers took was not so fresh. Dallek writes that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley said of Nixon, "They've embalmed him before he even died."
Sometimes I wonder if either Kennedy or Nixon had any idea, on that September night in 1960, of the Pandora's box they had opened.
It didn't open completely for awhile. Presidential candidates did not debate again for 16 years. Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford resumed the practice on Sept. 24, 1976, and their first debate was noteworthy for an audio problem that interrupted things for nearly half an hour.
In their next encounter, President Ford uttered a gaffe that dominated news reports and may have helped Carter win the election. If nothing else, the Carter–Ford debates inspired a tradition on the nascent, one–year–old Saturday Night Live of satirical skits based on the debates, and presidential candidates have obliged SNL's writers with plenty of material ever since.
Four years later, Carter had only one debate with his challenger, Ronald Reagan, about a week before the election, but the most memorable moments were Reagan's, and he ultimately won the election.
In 1984, many of the most memorable moments in the debates between Reagan and former Vice President Walter Mondale belonged to Mondale. But that didn't help him in the election, in which Reagan carried 49 states.
When George H.W. Bush ran against Michael Dukakis in 1988, Dukakis came across as unemotional when asked if he would favor the death penalty for a hypothetical assailant who was convicted of raping and murdering his wife.
But the most memorable moment from the 1988 debates came when the vice presidential candidates, Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle, had their only encounter.
The 1992 debates provided a new twist on the theme. For the first time, a third–party candidate, Ross Perot, was allowed to participate. But the most memorable moment came in a "town hall format" — the first of its kind in presidential debates — when the candidates were asked how the economy had affected them.
I can't really say there were any particularly memorable moments from Bill Clinton's debates with Bob Dole in 1996. Clinton's victory almost seemed a foregone conclusion. But Dole's age (he was 73) was always an issue in the campaign, even if it wasn't mentioned.
In 2000, there were many jokes made about Al Gore's audible sighing and frequent references to "lockbox," just as there were jokes made about George W. Bush's references to "fuzzy math." In the end, though, I wonder if many votes were swayed by the televised encounters.
The same could be wondered about the Bush–Kerry debates in 2004 or the Obama–McCain debates last year. But both provided more than their share of humorous moments for SNL and MadTV.
As technology has become more sophisticated, presidential debates have become more entertainment than anything else. Viewers watch, hoping to see one of the candidates stumble, not unlike those who watch hockey games hoping to see a fight break out on the ice.
Are presidential debates still relevant? Do voters learn anything from seeing the major candidates discuss the issues?