Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future

June 26, 2008

As chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1961, Newton N. Minow famously remarked that American television was a "vast wasteland". Currently vice-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Minow (now in his eighties) has always tried to cultivate this wilderness. Inside the Presidential Debates is "a policy memoir" and its rather disparate chapters cover the history of the debates, their critics and supporters, and the inclusion (or not) of third-party candidates.

In 1992, the millionaire Ross Perot was given "equal time" with Bill Clinton and George H. Bush. But in 2000 and 2004, third-party candidate Ralph Nader tried - and failed - to participate.

The first televised presidential debate occurred in 1960, when a tanned and photogenic Democratic senator, John Kennedy, confronted a pale and perspiring Richard Nixon, the incumbent Republican Vice-President. One moderator and three journalists questioned the contenders. The major issue discussed was the alleged threat of global communism. More than 73 million viewers watched the first of the four debates, and judged JFK the winner; radio listeners reached the opposite conclusion.

These debates were realised only because Congress suspended the "equal opportunity" clause of the Federal Communications Act, which required that all candidates for office should be granted "equal time" in broadcast debates. But in 1964, incumbent President Lyndon Baines Johnson, not wishing to debate the Republican nominee, Barry Goldwater, made it clear that he would not ask Congress again to suspend the "equal time" provision. The debates were not resumed until 1976, after the FCC revised its interpretation of the law. They are now mandatory.

Minow's law partner, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee in 1952, was an enthusiastic advocate of the debates. But he was appalled to learn that the Eisenhower campaign would be using TV commercials and asked: "What the hell do they think the White House is, a box of cornflakes?"

Minow and Craig L. LaMay, a professor of journalism, recount the gaffes that turned some debates into farces. In 1976, during the second debate between incumbent Gerald R. Ford and Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter, Ford asserted that Poland was no longer under communist rule. In 1992, President George H. Bush was seen looking at his watch during a debate with Bill Clinton. They had earlier quarrelled over whether glasses of water should be placed on a table or on the floor. In 2004, the commission ruled that the dates, format and venues of the debates were non-negotiable.

The 2008 presidential election will take place at a time when more than 70 per cent of American households have internet access and when "an estimated 90 per cent of US internet users are registered voters". Minow and LaMay believe that the internet should be used to "broaden the appeal and informative power of the debates" - perhaps with an online debate added. Again, public opinion surveys indicate that any viable third-party candidate should be allowed to participate in TV debates, and questions should not be limited to reporters.

This book is a timely addition to the literature, and Clinton, Obama, McCain (and Nader) could read it with interest.

Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future

By Newton N. Minow and Craig L. LaMay
University of Chicago Press
ISBN 9780226530413
Published 11 April 2008

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