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
The arrival of radio in the 20th century meant campaigning took to the airwaves. But there was still no great call for candidates to face off. And front-runners, including Franklin D. Roosevelt in his four campaigns, had no compelling reason to give an opponent equal standing. In 1934, the Communications Act actually complicated the idea of a two-man debate by requiring broadcasters to give an opportunity to all candidates, including those in minor parties. But in 1948, Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen, two Republicans, met in a radio primary debate.
Television changed everything. Two televised “debates” of a sort took place in 1952 and 1956, both during the primaries. In 1952, contenders from both parties (or their representatives) took questions at the League of Women Voters convention. Two Democrats debated on television prior to the Florida primary in 1956, simply ignoring the “equal time” rule.
But in 1960, with television’s growing presence, Vice President Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy both saw an advantage in debates in a close race. Famed for the televised “Checkers Speech,” which saved his political life in 1952, and the “Kitchen Debate” in Moscow with Nikita Khrushchev in 1959, Nixon was confident about his television and debate skills. And to turn down the debate with Kennedy might, “have cost him politically in the new TV age,” noted Robert Dallek. More important, Congress complied by suspending the “equal time” rule to allow a two-man debate and keep out third party candidates.
The rest, as they say, is history.