Eight Lessons for the Presidential Debates

What are the key do's and don'ts the candidates should remember when campaigning for the White House?

07 Oct 1960, Washington, DC, USA --- Presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon shake hands after their televised debate of October 7, 1960. The two opponents continued their debate after the cameras had stopped. (© Bettmann / CORBIS)

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 Douglas in 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.

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. 

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