Eight Lessons for the Presidential Debates
What are the key dos and don'ts the candidates should remember when campaigning for the White House?
- By Kenneth C. Davis
- Smithsonian.com, October 03, 2012
As the current contenders prep furiously for the first of three presidential debates on October 3, and a vice presidential debate on October 11, it's a good time to heed George Santayana’s famous warning: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Presidential debate history can be instructive. Reviewing some of the memorable moments—and debate debacles—from these televised showdowns provides a worthy primer in “debatiquette:” the proper dos and don’ts for successful debaters.
Before the coming of television, America’s most famous debates had taken place in 1858, pitting Abraham Lincoln against Stephen Douglasin an Illinois Senate race. Before that contest, Lincoln was seen as a country bumpkin. But with telegraphed reports appearing in newspapers, Lincoln emerged from the debates a nationally recognized figure who would become the Republican pick for president—winning the election in 1860.
Then, for the next 100 years: No debates.
Part of the reason was tradition. Candidates stuck to the tried and true “front porch” campaigns. Nominees sat at home on rockers, fielding softball questions from visiting journalists. Surrogates did the dirty work on the stump and openly partisan newspapers carried their messages.
With the railroad, came the “whistle stop” campaign, in which candidates offered a stump speech from a caboose and waved to the crowds before moving on to the next town.