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The Long History of Americans Debating Empty Chairs

The history of debating empty chairs stretches back to at least 1924

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As part of yesterday’s showings at the Republican National Convention, famed actor and director Clint Eastwood startled and amused viewers by mock-debating an empty chair, meant to represent President Obama.

Many who saw the scene thought it to be strange and bizarre, let alone unconventional, for a forum that is usually meticulously directed. Delegates on the convention floor, however, loved it.

But it turns out that the history of debating empty chairs is a rich one, stretching back to at least 1924 when Progressive* vice-presidential nominee Burton K. Wheeler took a stab at an invisible President Calvin Coolidge.

American History

Safire’s Political Dictionary describes the event, quoting from Wheeler’s autobiography Yankee From The West.

In Des Moines, I hit on an original showmanship gimmick. The hall was jammed to the rafters… I said, “You people have a right to know how a candidate for President stands on issues, and so far President Coolidge has not told you where he stands on anything… so I am going to call him before you tonight and ask him to take this chair and tell me where he stands.” People in the auditorium began to crane their necks to see if Coolidge really was somewhere on the premises. I pulled a vacant chair and addressed it as though it had an occupant. “President Coolidge,” I began, “tell us where you stand on Prohibition.” I went on with rhetorical questions in this vein, pausing after each for a short period. Then I wound up: “There, my friends, is the usual silence that emanates from the White House.” The crowd roared in appreciation.

Safire’s dictionary also brings us more tales from history. In 1949, when John Foster Dulles ran for a Senate seat against Herbert Lehman, the former governor from New York, Dulles pulled a similar stunt. This time, though, Dulles made a habit of it. “Dulles traveled with a “prop”–an empty chair he debated in lieu of Lehman,” says the dictionary.

Years later, in 1966, the empty-chair-debate came up again during a race for governor of New York. Again, in Russia this time, an empty chair was left to stand in for Boris Yeltsin who had refused to participate in a televised debate.

The Modern Era

The Huffington Post points us to a fake debate just two years ago between blogger Mickey Kaus and California Senator Barbara Boxer, whom he was challenging in the state’s Democratic primary. Branching out from the tried-and-tested empty chair, Kaus instead decided it would be prudent to symbolize his opponent with a cardboard box.

And, in fact, just last week, Scott Howell, who is currently running for the Senate seat in Utah, debated an invisible Orrin Hatch. The Salt Lake Tribune:

Democrat Scott Howell, Constitution Party nominee Shaun McCausland and unaffiliated candidate Bill Barron took turns throwing verbal darts at the absent Hatch before an audience of just 20 people at the Bountiful City Hall.

In the Media

Last but not least, Poynter points us to an ongoing trend in empty-chair debates involving television interviewers. Just this year, they say, empty chairs have sat in for: U.S. Representative Todd Akin, George Zimmerman’s lawyer, and Maggie Gallagher.

 

*This passage originally claimed Wheeler as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, when he was in fact running for the Progressive Party.

More from Smithsonian.com:
Debating on Television: Then and Now

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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