An excerpt from Inside the Presidential Debates Their Improbable Past and Promising Future Newton N.

Minow and Craig . aMa!

President John F. Kennedy told me more than once that without the televised debates he would not have been elected president in 1960. The debates were the first ever face to face encounters between ma!or party presidential candidates. "oin# into the campai#n$ Kennedy was not nearly as well %nown as &ichard '. (i)on$ who had been vice president for ei#ht years. *nd yet today almost no one remembers the issues the two men discussed. The candidates spent much of their time ar#uin# over +hina,s intentions toward two tiny Pacific islands$ -uemoy and 'atsu$ claimed by (ationalist Taiwan$ a matter .uic%ly for#otten after the election. The matter of /south 0ndochina1 came up so briefly that no one noticed it. 2esides$ the vice president assured the audience$ /the civil war there was ended 3 and the +ommunists have moved out.1 2ut for better and worse$ the Kennedy (i)on debates chan#ed presidential elections forever$ propellin# them into the a#e of television. 0n 1960 it had been only four years that a ma!ority of *merican homes had a television set$ and the /#reat debates$1 as they were called$ brou#ht the candidates into the livin# rooms of millions of voters$ allowin# them to see$ hear$ and !ud#e them in a way never before possible. *t the same time$ the e)perience sto%ed the public appetite for and the modern campai#n,s emphasis on the ima#e and the sound bite4those who saw the debates on television #ave them to Kennedy$ while those who heard them on the radio thou#ht (i)on the winner. 5on 6ewitt$ who produced the first debate in +hica#o for +27$ later said$ /0t was not important who won or lost that debate. That first debate launched Jac% Kennedy onto the national scene.1 8ice President (i)on had arrived at the television studio first$ 6ewitt said$ and /ban#ed his %nee #ettin# out of the car. 6e loo%ed sort of #reen and sallow and unhappy. Then in wal%s this handsome 6arvard %id who loo%s li%e a matinee idol. 0 said to both of them$ 95o you want some ma%eup:, Kennedy$ who didn,t need any$ said no. (i)on heard him say no and decided$ 90 can,t have ma%eup because it will loo% li%e 0 #ot made up and he didn,t., 6e went off in another room and #ot made up with somethin# called ;a<y 7have$ and loo%ed li%e death warmed over. /Four years later$1 6ewitt said$ /0,m sittin# in a ma%eup room in 7an Francisco. &ichard (i)on is bein# made up to #o out on the rostrum to introduce the =&epublican> nominee$ 2arry "oldwater. *nd 0 said$ 9?ou %now$ 'r. (i)on$ if you,d let Franny here ma%e you up four years a#o$ 2arry "oldwater would be #oin# out there now to introduce you.1 6e loo%ed in the mirror. *nd then he turned very slowly to me and he said$ 9?ou %now$ you,re probably ri#ht.,1

*t the same time$ (2+ 2lue be#an a more formal debate pro#ram$ America’s Town Meeting of . The candidates did not participateL instead$ !ournalists$ scholars$ and other politicians ar#ued on their behalf.ea#ue of Eomen 8oters sponsored a ten month series of nationally broadcast debates. (ot until 19HB$ after (i)on left office$ was the law chan#ed$ this time without any con#ressional action. The same year$ the 'utual 2roadcastin# 7ystem launched American Forum of the Air. 0n 196G there was no incumbent$ and thou#h 8ice President 6ubert 6umphrey wanted desperately to debate$ (i)on4perhaps because of his e)perience in 19604did not. Eithout such a chan#e$ the law would have re. a re#ular public affairs and debate pro#ram moderated by lawyer Theodore "rani%$ who #rilled candidates for lesser national and state offices and interrupted any candidate who tried to avoid his .ual time on television4and there were at least a do<en more candidates. 7o a#ain the law was not chan#ed. 0n 19HI$ President (i)on a#ain told +on#ress that he would not debate his challen#er$ 7outh 5a%ota senator "eor#e 'c"overn.Three short years after those first televised encounters between (i)on and Kennedy$ the president would be assassinated$ and with him went the nascent /tradition1 of televised presidential debates. Their 196G convention in +hica#o had been a disaster$ and they were poorly prepared in 19HI.uestions.ual time law to ma%e debates possible. Politics and the law stood in the way@ 0n 1960$ +on#ress suspended 7ection A1B Cthe /e.ual time law was not suspended. Jf course$ 5emocrats controlled the +on#ress then and could have pushed the issue$ but they were horribly divided. 0nstead$ the Federal +ommunications +ommission CF++D revised its interpretation of the e. 0n 'arch 19AB$ (2+ &ed$ one of two (2+ radio networ%s at the time$ went national with The University of Chicago Round Table. *s a result of Eater#ate and his pardon of former president (i)on$ President "erald Ford entered the 19H6 campai#n trailin# far behind his challen#er$ "eor#ia "overnor Jimmy +arter$ in the polls. President Kennedy had already si#naled his intention to as% for another waiver$ havin# promised his friend 2arry "oldwater that if "oldwater won the &epublican nomination in 196F the two men would travel the country to#ether and debate. Eith the chan#e in the law$ as in 1960$ the opportunity for debates in 19H6 was fortuitous. 7ei<in# the moment$ a handful of s%illed and determined public officials from both ma!or parties wor%ed with citi<ens and civic #roups to ma%e the presidential debates happen. 2ut in 196F$ incumbent president . 2efore the 19IG presidential election$ the then new . The tradition be#un by President Ford and "overnor +arter has survived$ but it has not been easy.uired every candidate for the office to be afforded e.ual time1 lawD of the Federal +ommunications *ct so as to ma%e possible the nation. """ 2roadcast political debates in the Knited 7tates be#an with the earliest days of radio.yndon Johnson sent clear word to the 7enate that he did not want a similar suspension of the law$ because he did not want to debate &epublican nominee "oldwater.s first presidential debate. Ford felt he had to debate to win bac% public support. a public affairs debate pro#ram. The e.

(i)on and 'assachusetts 7enator John F. /0f we persist$1 said 5enny$ /in the practice of &epublicans readin# only &epublican newspapers$ listenin# only to &epublican speeches on the radio$ attendin# only &epublican political rallies$ and mi)in# socially only with those of con#enial views$ and if 5emocrats 3 follow suit$ we are sowin# the seeds of the destruction of our democracy. in which two candidates were each #iven twenty uninterrupted minutes to ma%e their case to the listenin# audience at home and a live audience in the studio. history that the nominees of the ma!or parties had !oined in such a face to face encounter.uestion. performances loo%in# for the /winner. 2ut citi<ens watch the debates in total numbers that rival or even e)ceed the 7uper 2owl for viewership. * #eneration later$ the new broadcast technolo#y of television chan#ed *merican politics even more profoundly. The pro#ram.1 'edia watchdo# or#ani<ations and political advocacy #roups . le#itimacy$ even their le#ality. 0t was this way from the be#innin#.the Air. Kennedy met in +hica#o in 7eptember 1960 for the first of their four televised debates$ it was the first time in K.incoln and 7tephen 5ou#las$ who were runnin# a#ainst each other for an 0llinois 7enate seat. 2efore and after the debates$ the candidates.1 President Fran%lin &oosevelt stron#ly shared this opinion of newspaper reportin#$ which he thou#ht was too often ideolo#ically driven$ and for that reason he too% to radio with his /fireside chats1 so he could communicate directly with the public. 'inority parties and their supporters scorn the debates as a sham4e)cept when their nominees are included in them. . *t the hei#ht of its popularity the pro#ram had five million listeners wee%ly. The debates are their one opportunity in the campai#n to see and hear the candidates spea% directly to each other in a face to face encounter. *nticipatin# the first of the four 1960 debates between 8ice President &ichard (i)on and 7enator John Kennedy$ the print media were deeply s%eptical of their broadcast competitors.uestions from members of the studio audience on matters of national interest$ and a pri<e was awarded to the audience member who as%ed the best .incoln understood very well the importance of debates@ he %ept notes as to what was said in his encounters with 5ou#las$ includin# verbatim reports from newspapers$ and then published a boo% on the debates4the only boo% our si)teenth president ever published. The candidates themselves pose and posture before accedin# to the debates$ li%e pri<efi#hters tryin# to intimidate each other. 5enny Jr.s moderator$ "eor#e 8. 7ome HH million *mericans460 percent of the adult population4watched that first Kennedy (i)on debate$ more than five thousand times the avera#e audience for what had been until then the most famous political debates in *merican politics4the 1GBG meetin#s between *braham .incoln 5ou#las debates are the benchmar% for critics who decry the televised presidential debates as hi#h sta%es political theater with little or no real substance. remar%s to ma%e favored candidates and parties loo% better.uestion the debates. * Wall treet !ournal editorial warned . Ehen 8ice President &ichard '. Today the .7. campai#n staff and party spo%espersons spin them for political advanta#e. The balance of the hour lon# pro#ram consisted of .$ believed that radio was a medium much better suited to political discussion than newspapers because$ he claimed$ the latter were always editin# candidates. Political pundits and !ournalists scour the candidates.

Thou#h the pro#rams represented a professional milestone for the television networ%s$ which had lon# wanted to prove themselves important contributors to the national political discussion$ many of their affiliates were an#ered by the debates because of pro#ram preemptions and lost advertisin# revenue.1 *mon# many others$ Master named as defendants in his suit both houses of +on#ress$ F++ +hairman Frederic% Ford$ (2+ President &obert Kintner$ 8ice President (i)on$ and 7enator Kennedy. can be handled in one and a half or two and a half minutes is not an encoura#in# au#ury of the campai#n to come. Kennedy will each be tryin# to brin# the audience to his point of view$ 3 but the dan#er is that they will be attemptin# to do this not so much by e)planation and lo#ic but by personality pro!ection$ char#es and counter char#es$ empty promises$ and plain #immic%s of one sort or another. 7arnoff was e.s ma!or print media but only representatives from the three networ%s.s pro#ram with the . Trade ma#a<ine %roadcasting estimated that .that the televised encounter would be /ri##ed more for entertainment than for enli#htenment.1 Jac% "ould$ the eminent television critic for the "ew #or$ Times$ panned the decision to rely on a panel of !ournalists to as% the . (i)on and 'r.uestions and answers is a discussion between the two men3 For the candidates to a#ree that serious issues discussed in 9the #reat conference.1 Jn the mornin# of the first (i)on Kennedy encounter$ 7eptember I6$ a Times writer compared the comin# evenin#. 0f the press was not fully satisfied$ neither were the candidates. 7pea%in# afterward$ (2+ chairman &obert E.incoln 5ou#las debates of 1GBG and intimated that the 1960 debates would be found wantin# by comparison. Mventually the 1960 debates ran without interruption even for local station brea%s.1 The paper predicted that /'r. 0n testimony before +on#ress$ +27 president Fran% 7tanton promised that his networ% would not accept commercial sponsorship for the debates. Master$ sued in federal district court to be included in the pro#ram. *lso prior to the first debate$ an /independent1 candidate who had unsuccessfully sou#ht the 5emocratic nomination$ *ndrew J. The press secretaries for both candidates4Pierre 7alin#er for 7enator Kennedy and 6erbert Klein for 8ice President (i)on4complained prior to the first debate that the panel of !ournalists included no one from the nation. Master claimed that the con#ressional action that made the debates possible was an unconstitutional abrid#ment of his ri#ht to participate$ for it was allowin# the networ%s to en#a#e in /discriminatory and unfair practices in silent unison.uivocal on the issue$ notin# at one point that (2+ had received /e)pressions of sponsor interest1 in the debates and that he /felt it desirable in the public interest to encoura#e sponsorship of informational pro#rams in the field of public affairs. The fear is that they will not discuss the issues as much as put on a show. (either was the broadcast industry uniformly happy with the debates.s personality$ whether he tal%s too much or too little$ a desire to be with the winner or sympathy for the underdo#$ and many other far less rational factors.1 The "ew #or$ Times wrote dismissively that the debate would appeal most to voters /who are influenced not so much by lo#ic and reason as by emotional$ illo#ical factors4the candidate.1 The sponsorship issue was a critical one@ in the a#reement hammered out between the networ%s and +on#ress$ the networ%s each had promised to provide a minimum of ei#ht hours of public service time without char#e to the ma!or party candidates in 1960.uestions@ /Ehat is very definitely wanted rather than mere .

s ri#id format.each of the four debates that year cost each of the networ%s appro)imately a half million dollars in for#one advertisin# revenue and pro#ram preemptions4about N6 million overall4and their affiliates many millions more. The %altimore un. Mven #ood . The eminent historian 6enry 7teele +omma#er wrote in the "ew #or$ Times Maga. For the first debate$ on 7eptember I6$ the "allup Poll assembled si)ty avowed /independent1 voters in a movie house in 6opewell$ (ew Jersey$ to watch the pro#ram and$ with an electronic bo)$ to re#ister their /approval1 or /disapproval1 of the candidates.uestions about labor policy$ ta)es$ civil ri#hts$ #overnment spendin# or about the role of #overnment in welfare le#islation.s voters done for +27 by pollster Mlmo &oper found that FF percent believed the debates had influenced their voteL B percent said their presidential choice was based solely on the debates.1 2y the end of the wee%$ the "ew #or$ Times would report$ based on a handful of random interviews throu#hout the country$ that the debate had done little to chan#e voters.uestions as%ed by the commentators #ot the ar#ument !ust about nowhere.uestions$ sayin# the debate was /bad television$ and whoever arran#ed the show either was overawed by the occasion and the personalities or he !ust did not %now his business3 . The point of the e)ercise$ said the Wall treet !ournal$ was /to uncover new clues as to what issues concern *merican voters this year and how they will vote (ovember G.uestions with professional s%ill but seemed somewhat confined by the pro#ram. The same day$ however$ ten southern #overnors who had previously been at best lu%ewarm to Kennedy. 0n the future these fellows can be dispensed with.1 The "ew #or$ Mirror critici<ed even more harshly the decision to have !ournalists as% the . The mornin# after the first debate$ newspaper reviews of the pro#ram were mi)ed$ but a common theme to most was that television was too superficial a medium for such a serious business as national politics.1 Jther newspapers were more charitable$ if not entirely enthusiastic. The Wall treet !ournal$ confirmin# its own predebate prediction$ complained that /those #hostly fi#ures with their bac%s to the cameras were nothin# but distractions.uestion and reply to each other$ they would have inevitably pushed themselves to the hard . remar%s. for e)ample$ wrote that /the 9#reat debate.t e)actly #reat and it wasn. wasn.1 Journalists were not alone in their criticism. There was too much emphasis on seein# to it that each candidate had the same number of seconds in which to spea%. (i)on and the issues facin# our country.t e)actly a debate$ but it was the best political pro#ram of the year.1 The t& 'ouis (ost)*is+atch called the pro#ram /a stiff and formali<ed occasion1 but allowed that a /real discussion of the issues did ta%e place. 'oreover$ the 1960 debates were not entirely free from instant polls and political spin.uestions.uestions would have derailed the conversation3 0f instead the two candidates had been left alone to spea%$ to .1 The eattle Times concluded that /both candidates handled tou#h . minds. The . The "ew #or$ "ews called the pro#ram a /powderpuff performance1 and char#ed that the /T8 tycoons1 had prevented the candidates from fully en#a#in# each other by their use of a panel of !ournalists to as% .1 * scientific survey of the nation.ine that /televised press conferences in .s candidacy stron#ly endorsed him$ citin# his /superb handlin# of 'r.

incoln would have fared well in /such televised press interviews. /0 always thou#ht Kennedy was a %iddie$ but he really came out last ni#ht.1 Thou#h most newspaper editorials called the debate a draw$ anecdotal reports from viewers su##ested that Kennedy had si#nificantly increased his standin# amon# undecided voters. The 2ritish 2roadcastin# +orporation C22+D showed the first debate in its entirety$ and .s really lost wei#ht$ and 0 %ept noticin# beads of sweat on his forehead. Jne 5etroit woman told the Wall treet !ournal$ /0 learned more about what each man stands for in an hour than 0 have in two months of readin# the papers.1 The !ournalist scholar (orman +ousins was harsher$ writin# in the aturday Review that the debates ran /counter to the educational process. Jn television$ all four debates attracted audiences avera#in# I0 percent lar#er than the entertainment pro#rams they replaced. 7aid one 5allas man$ /(i)on loo%ed sic%. . Perhaps they have established a new tradition.B million *mericans saw that first debate$ and two thirds of the nation.1 The .uire that a man %eep his mouth movin# whether he has somethin# to say or not3 Thou#htful silence is made to appear a confession of i#norance. 0. They re.uestion.1 (i)on supporters$ by contrast$ were concerned.s a better spea%er. Kennedy loo%ed better.s *aily Mirror called the pro#ram /a brilliant lesson from *merica on how to ma%e an election come vividly alive.1 Jnly the 2ritish seemed to thin% the debates an unalloyed success. . * Jac%sonville$ Florida$ real estate bro%er told the !ournal.s FB million households with television sets tuned in to watch. *t the conclusion of the final pro#ram$ moderator -uincy 6owe of *2+ (ews said@ /8ice President (i)on and 7enator Kennedy have used a new means of communication to pioneer a new type of political debate3 7urely they have set a new precedent.t have ta%en the time to read in the papers.1 2ut it would not be that easy.1 * youn# *nchora#e sales cler% who would be votin# for the first time told the paper$ /2efore$ 0 was concerned only with thin#s li%e Kennedy. 6e loo%ed as thou#h he. The fourth and final debate of the 1960 campai#n was broadcast from *2+ (ews studios in (ew ?or%. 0t was somethin# 0 %now 0 wouldn.1 Problems notwithstandin#$ history records the 1960 debates a #reat success with voters@ accordin# to data compiled by the ratin#s firm *rbitron$ HA.ondon "ews Chronicle su##ested 2ritain copy the idea@ /7et rival leaders to#ether on the same screen and the most partisan of viewers is forced to hear both sides of the .future campai#ns could be a disaster1 and offered his view that neither "eor#e Eashin#ton nor *braham . 0f the political e)perts and pundits had their doubts$ the public did not.s the boy.ondon. 6e has more brains4an ama<in# memory and he.d been leanin# toward (i)on$ but now 0 thin% Kennedy.s #rin and his reli#ion$ but now 0 feel the campai#n is seriously #rounded on issues.1 &eporters travelin# with (i)on said the vice president was disappointed in his performance.i%e the previous three$ the fourth drew an audience of more than 60 million viewersL an avera#e of H1 million viewers watched each of the four debates$ and a total of more than 11B million *mericans watched at least some part of the four debates on television or listened to them on the radio.

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