On Sept. 29, in Cleveland, Ohio, the presidential nominees of the Democratic and Republican parties will hold the first of three televised debates. Forensic encounters have been a staple of our presidential campaigns in recent decades and often have been decisive.
While the era of mass communications began in the 1920s with the advent of radio, there were no broadcast debates between presidential nominees at that time. Calvin Coolidge never debated John W. Davis, nor did Herbert Hoover with Al Smith or Franklin Roosevelt with Alf Landon, Wendell Willkie or Thomas Dewey.
Television surpassed radio as the preeminent means of mass communications in the immediate aftermath of World War II. By the early 1950s, small, black-and-white TVs with either ‘rabbit ears’ or rooftop aerials held pride of place in most of the nation’s living rooms.
Obviously, this new electronic medium had unique and tremendous potential for public enlightenment. The realization of this led to the famous John F. Kennedy/Richard M. Nixon debates in 1960.
There were four of these debates. The most influential was the first, which was held in Chicago on Sept. 26, 1960.
Nixon recently had had a lengthy hospitalization for a severe knee injury, and his appearance remained thin, haggard and out of sorts. Even worse, he had banged this same knee on a car door while en route to the debate, and was in heightened agony. So alarming was Nixon’s demeanor that Chicago Mayor Richard Daley remarked that he looked “embalmed.”
Nixon’s diffident verbal manner only made matters worse. The tanned and confident Kennedy mopped the floor with the vice president, and probably would have lost the election otherwise.
Mindful of Nixon’s fate, future presidential nominees avoided debates until 1976, when beleaguered incumbent Gerald Ford publicly challenged Jimmy Carter to a series of verbal duels. The arrangements were quickly settled.
But Ford committed a catastrophic gaffe in the second of these encounters with his ludicrous assertion that “there is no Soviet domination of eastern Europe.” Again, this was in 1976, long before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain in 1989. Although indisputably a decent and well-intentioned man, Ford never recovered.
Nevertheless, the precedent set by Ford and Carter seems permanent, and debates have continued to be of high prominence. Certainly crucial were Ronald Reagan’s upending of Carter in 1980 and of Walter Mondale in 1984. Obviously damaged by subpar debate performances were Michael Dukakis in 1988, Al Gore in 2000 and Mitt Romney in 2012.
In store for Sept. 29 is a confrontation between a former senator and vice president with 50 years experience and a desperate, arm-flailing incumbent who has problems with “alternative facts.”
It should be interesting. To quote the legendary actress Bette Davis: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”