Do debates matter?
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln was a little known congressman who wanted the Illinois Legislature to elect him to the U.S. Senate. (Prior to 1913, U.S. Senators were elected by state legislatures.) Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, and his Democrat opponent, the incumbent U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas, agreed on a series of seven debates.
Douglas was pro-slavery. Lincoln was anti-slavery. Consequently, the debates drew national attention. Eventually, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates would play a role in the lives of millions of black Americans.
In 1858, radio and television were not available. People craved both news and entertainment. Huge crowds, ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 flocked to the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. In a festive atmosphere, vendors sold food, drinks, and souvenirs.
Every major newspaper sent reporters to copy down every word spoken by Lincoln and by Douglas. But if you think CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and National Public Radio invented biased political reporting, you would be wrong.
The pro-Douglas newspapers edited what Douglas said, removing any grammatical errors or confusing statements, leaving Lincoln’s words just as Lincoln spoke them. But then, the pro-Lincoln newspapers did the same thing to the words spoken by Douglas.
While both candidates demonstrated mental acuity and their grasp of the issues, it was Douglas who went on to win reelection to the U.S. Senate. Abraham Lincoln, however, was the person who benefited more from the debates. The debates propelled the quick-witted and often humorous Abraham Lincoln from being an obscure U.S. House member to being the national champion of the Abolitionist Movement.
As every schoolchild should know (but maybe not these days), Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860, defeated the Confederacy in the Civil War, saved the Union, freed the slaves, and was assassinated by the pro-slavery stage actor John Wilkes Booth.
In the years between 1858 and 1956, presidential debates were held now and then. But none of them were as seminal as the 1960 televised debates between Vice President Richard Nixon and U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy. In their first debate, Nixon looked too thin, refused to wear TV make-up and appeared with a heavy five o’clock shadow. The underdog Kennedy came across as fresh, mentally quick on his feet, and up to the job of president.
Over the years, presidential debates have become a customary element of presidential campaigns. The formats have varied. Sometimes, the candidates were seated at separate desks, facing a single moderator. More recently, each candidate stands behind a lectern, facing interrogation by a handful of well-known journalists.
But the primary objective of the presidential debates has remained the same: An opportunity for swing voters to judge each candidate’s knowledge of the issues and their ability to express themselves with force and clarity. Or, not.
Today, our major foreign-policy challenge is Red China’s on-going attempt to become the world’s top economic power. Domestically, we face biological warfare designed to bring our domestic economy to a standstill. Add to that a violent Marxist insurrection apparently aligned with the objectives of Red China.
Should these issues be debated on national TV? Surely, presidential candidates standing behind widely separated lecterns are not likely to spread the Wuhan virus. What could possibly go wrong?
©2020. William Hamilton.
William Hamilton is a laureate of the Oklahoma Military Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame, the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame, the Colorado Aviation Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma University Army ROTC Wall of Fame. Dr. Hamilton’s latest book: Formula for Failure in Vietnam: The Folly of Limited Warfare can be ordered toll free at: (800) 253-2187 Or, go to Amazon.com.