Presidential Debates: Our Union of Words Seven moments that defined a nation that likes a good argument.

“Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric,” said Irish poet W.B. Yeats, “out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.”

Perhaps the only third tier that might be added to Yeats’s famous assessment on arguments would be this: It is out of the quarrel of presidential candidates that U.S. voters intuit their way closer toward Election Day.

Presidential debates may seem like a strange gauge to measure the mettle of our candidates, for either the presidency or the local board of education, but for a nation that also loves professional and collegiate sporting events it makes sense that we would favor the spectacle of competition in our politics, too.

Even that is an inelegant analogy, though, as there is no final score but for the weighing of certain qualities in our head. As forensic scholars and former high-school debate team captains will tell you, debates featuring nominees for public office have very little at all to do with debate as it is, and was, formerly known in ancient Greece, which organized contests among speakers to better determine and articulate the ideals most dear to the democratic state.

A presidential debate, then, is a kind of evaluative game inside our heads, where the stakes get intensified when we compare notes with others; but it is also a historical act.

In contrast to the “real” (read: professional) deal of forensic competition, the debate of our political tradition is more akin to theater, generously laced with “zingers” and “outbursts” more fitting for a street corner quarrel about the merits of a popular movie than for a deliberate and trenchant exchange about the “grand strategy” for the nation.

Watching a presidential debate, judging the performances of opposing personalities, and declaring a winner is an exercise mixing a keen understanding of the candidates’ rhetorical skills and argumentative rigor with our in-built sense of confirmation bias, and certainly requires more attentiveness than any casual discussion about “whom we liked” or “whom we disliked” with our friends. In Aristotelian terms, what part of each candidate’s performance relied on ethos (charisma or appeal of the speaker), pathos (appeal to our better or worse nature), or logos (facts and reason)? When we watch our favored candidate, to what extent are we honest about that person’s performance or how much do we delude ourselves for the sake of our own ego?

A presidential debate, then, is a kind of evaluative game inside our heads, where the stakes get intensified when we compare notes with others; but it is also a historical act. To know something about our presidential debates, then, is to know the issues and characteristics we value in our leaders, why we value those issues and characteristics, and when we valued them.


August-October, 1858, The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

True, not a presidential debate at all, but rather a series of seven debates for a U.S. Senate seat held throughout rural Illinois.

Still, no list of U.S. debates is complete without this, the first of its kind in the history of our nation.

The U.S. Constitution was argued over inside Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, with its ratification heatedly contested through dueling publication of Federalist and anti-Federalist papers. The young nation would have to wait almost 70 years before dough-faced incumbent Stephen A. Douglas and stark-looking upstart Abraham Lincoln, a young lawyer from Springfield, would show everyone how it was done, and then some.

Speaking almost in shifts, and at length, each debate lasted hours on end, with one candidate expounding at length for 60 minutes, the other speaking for 90 minutes, with the opening candidate then responding with a 30-minute repute. Focus, stamina, and rhetorical fortitude were the order of the day. And it was all before an outdoor crowd free to cheer, hector or boo in response. There is no shortage of film and educational re-creations of this seismic event, but perhaps C-SPAN offers the best, full treatment.

Few had ever heard of Lincoln before these debates made him rightly famous—his famous “House Divided” speech to Illinois Republicans who nominated him for the race was a prelude—but they afforded him an invaluable platform through which two issues central to the day would be vented, argued, and articulated: abolition vs. slavery, along with the battle of national unity vs. states rights or “popular sovereignty” made even more urgent by the recent passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Dred-Scott U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Douglas went on to “win” his seat by successful persuasion of more state legislators (who then appointed U.S. Senators, rather than today’s popular vote) than Lincoln could muster. Of course, the fact that we know what happened in the decades that followed shows just how much these debates mattered to Lincoln’s reputation, an emerging Republican Party, and the future of a nation struggling with the stain of slavery.


September 26, 1960, “Suave Kennedy vs. Sweating Nixon”

This was not only the nation’s first-ever nationally televised presidential debate from Chicago, it was the nation’s first presidential debate of any sort so failing to mention this on a list of any consequential debates would be tantamount to malpractice.

Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kennedy, a Democrat came across as fit, tanned, and astute. Republican Vice President Richard Nixon, recovering from knee surgery and a staph infection, perspired and had a five o’clock shadow. (Nixon suffered from having a heavy beard.). The irony here is that Nixon was the far healthier of the two men. It was the nation’s official introduction to politics in the age of media, in which Marshall McLuhan’s dictate that “the medium is the message” became crystal clear. There is no political consultant or campaign manager who cannot recite, almost by heart, the debate’s outcome: Those who watched the debate on television declared Kennedy the clear winner, while those who listened to the radio broadcast alone tended to favor Nixon. Or so it is always assumed. The candidates had four debates, not just one, and Nixon’s appearance and performance improved in the subsequent encounters. Unfortunately, for the Republican standard-bearer, fewer people watched the other debates.

Adding a contentious twist to this watershed political event, it is worth noting that media and political science scholars still debate these points even today.


October 6, 1976, Jimmy Carter vs. Gerald Ford, “There is no Soviet domination … ”

The public was just getting over the twin traumas of the Watergate scandal and our nation’s abandonment of Vietnam, when former Georgia governor, successful peanut farmer, and born-again Christian Jimmy Carter became the Democratic challenger to Republican Gerald Ford for the White House. Ford had been appointed to the vice presidency by Nixon in 1973 after the resignation of Spiro Agnew. Their debates were the first presidential debates since Kennedy-Nixon, as neither Lyndon Johnson nor Nixon debated their opponents during the presidential elections of 1964, 1968, or 1972. The most memorable moment from the Ford-Carter debates was President Gerald Ford’s incredible announcement: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration,” Ford said during a televised debate with Jimmy Carter.

Even moderator Max Frankel wanted Ford’s personal reassurance that he had not misspoken: “Did I understand you to say, Sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence … ?”

Almost incredulously, Ford doubled down but later conceded that what he really meant was that the people of Eastern Europe were somehow too proud and indomitable to be occupied, even if they were in fact occupied and controlled by Soviet influence.

The public still scratched its head, wondering if Ford grew up under the same Cold War scenario as everyone else. The successor to Nixon’s troubled presidency was known for tripping up and down stairs. Add to that, after this debate, his tongue. In the end, this gaffe was not why Ford lost a close election battle; his loss is commonly attributed to the fact that almost immediately upon assuming office he pardoned disgraced former president Nixon.

October 13, 1988, George H.W. Bush and Gov. Michael Dukakis, a question of capital punishment

A common complaint of political campaigns, conventions and debates is that they all rely too much on elements of theater to carry their message. What we really need is a return to emphasis on policy. Do not trust a candidate’s charisma, and certainly do not trust a candidate who seems to be relying only on charisma to win. And emphatically do not trust a candidate who is simply using emotional manipulation. Policy expertise is what makes a candidate legitimate and captures the minds of voters.

But to lodge a complaint against emotional manipulation or charisma in politics, however, is like complaining that religion relies too much on faith. Is it even possible to divorce emotion from politics?

Case in point: Massachusetts’ Governor and Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakais’s answer to this question by moderator Bernard Shaw: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

Unbeknownst to Dukakis, a television camera zoomed in on his wife, who had a front-row seat at the debate hall, seconds after Shaw’s bracing hypothetical question.

Given two minutes to respond, Dukakis, a dull candidate with little charisma, wasted no time. Refusing the death penalty for his wife’s murderer, he followed with an analytical discussion of the death penalty’s ineffectiveness in deterring crime, followed by policy examples of what he had done as governor to decrease crime, followed by … millions of incredulous viewers could not believe a man could be so cold and unfeeling in the face of such a stark, tragic hypothetical, that he could so de-personalize the matter. That he did not milk the question for all its manipulative emotional worth was a true stunner.

The public already knew that their Democratic candidate was something of a policy wonk. That he failed to muster sufficient empathy for his raped and murdered wife left people wondering if the man was even human, and probably did lasting image to the reputation of policy wonks everywhere. Years afterward it was revealed that Dukakis’s campaign managers groaned watching his response, while Bush’s team let loose a locker-room victory cheer. Watching the clip, it is easy to see why.


October 5, 2004, John Edwards hits Dick Cheney

Among the rich offerings of vice presidential debate moments, people invariably recall Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen’s 1988 sick burn on Republican opponent Dan Quayle—“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”—along with Admiral James Stockdale’s charmingly off-key 1992 introduction as Ross Perot’s running mate—“Who am I? Why am I here?”

But picking either of those is like saying your favorite Beatles album is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The vice presidential debate moment for the ages is arguably John Edwards reminder to Dick Cheney during a question about gay marriage that Cheney’s second daughter, Mary, was openly lesbian. And not just any reminder, mind, but a reminder during an election season when the politics of amending the Constitution to prohibit the rights of marriage to gay people was very much at the contentious forefront of the nation’s cultural divide.

“I think the vice president and his wife love their daughter,” Edwards said (forward to 57:30). “I think they love her very much. And you can’t have anything but respect for the fact that they’re willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her.” Edwards, who voters will later learned cheated on his cancer-stricken wife and had a child with his mistress, hardly seems the source for expressions of moral condemnation. Further the salvo rather missed its point, as Dick Cheney never personally opposed gay marriage as he made clear in his 2000 debate against Democratic vice presidential rival Joe Lieberman, where his gay daughter was again a subject. No wonder Kerry lost in 2004, and no wonder that the less-than-slick Edwards never became president or even a presidential nominee. Cheney haters think Edwards has a lot to answer for.


September-October, 2008, John McCain and Barack Obama Square Off

Unless we count Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain’s odd tendency to neither look at nor address his opponent directly—the second of three debates saw McCain pointing askance to the future president as “that one,” at other times he wandered the stage while Obama spoke—all three debates between the two were marked by substantive exchanges on important issues. No real zingers. No churlish displays. No lingering controversy over whether moderates did their duty. Instead, vital, even thorough, discussions on energy policy, national security, foreign policy and who might make the best Treasury Secretary took center stage, with vigorous exchanges between McCain and Obama. Given the fact that the United States and world economies were in seeming freefall given the financial, banking and housing crisis sparked by sub-prime mortgages and derivative trading, the no-nonsense tone was to be expected. Braced by the possibility that our economic future was at stake, even as the occupation of Iraq and war in Afghanistan festered on, viewers paid attention. The lesson: circumstances of the times can dictate debates’ content, for real.


October 3, 2012, President Obama and Mitt Romney, “Obama’s Disaster in Denver”

Judged by one observer as “the worst debate by any candidate in either the presidential or the vice-presidential debates,” a sentiment echoed by many in post-debate analysis, supporters of President Obama peeked through their eyes in horror as their man cut a fatigued, bored, and weary figure alongside Mitt Romney’s brisk confidence, quick tone, and focused responses. “Non-effort,” “lazy and detached,” and “rusty” were among the kinder assessments, with virtually everyone acknowledging they had witnessed the rhetorical slaying of a sitting president. With Obama mumbling, bumbling, and generally looking down into his debate podium, there was no other way to put it. Even liberal commentators jockeyed with their conservative colleagues, albeit without the celebratory tone of Fox New pundits, in search of credulous explanations. While Matt Drudge speculated that Obama had popped Valium before the debate, Al Gore said the University of Denver’s high altitude campus could have induced the President’s light-headed airs. Bill Maher wondered if the conservative critics were right all along, and that Obama really was dependent on a teleprompter. It would be almost two weeks before Obama could right his own ship at the second presidential debate later that month at Hofstra University. Answering Romney’s charge that he waited two weeks to call the attacks on the Benghazi consulate terrorist in nature, Obama called on moderator Candy Crowley to remind the audience otherwise. In the case, despite Obama’s bad initial performance, and Romney’s overall credible performances in their debates, Obama won re-election which goes to show that the debates’ influence on election may be little, if any at all.