Presidential debates: Shake hands and come out acting

John F. Kennedy's and Richard Nixon's televised debates during the 1960 election campaign were the first ever for two presidential candidates.
(Associated Press)

Wednesday marks the 52nd anniversary of the first televised presidential candidate debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. It’s a dubious distinction. Although there’s every indication that debates matter in voter selection of a candidate, such rhetorical confrontations are poor indicators of future leadership.

By any reasonable standard, debates are won on form and rarely on substance. In the pre-microphone age of American politics, he who had the booming voice had the decided edge, as evidenced in the 1858 U.S. Senate race debates in Illinois between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln had a “shrill, piping, squeaking and unpleasant” voice, according to his law partner. Douglas, after 15 years in Congress, was the more skilled public speaker, energetically roaming the platform with gestures and colorful language sure to capture the attention of local audiences. After seven debates, Douglas won the Senate seat. And had debates been continued on a presidential level two years later, Douglas may well have emerged as the 16th president.



Those of us who grew up with debating as an essential part of our high school curriculum recognize that debates don’t measure leadership skills. They measure the ability to think quickly and speak coherently. The more prepared and articulate the speaker, with honed theatrical skills (in terms of eye contact, sincerity and, when appropriate, gestures and humor), the more likely he emerges the victor. It does not matter whether a debater presents the better argument — or, more important, has the leadership ability outside the debate forum to carry out his argument.

The situation becomes more serious in presidential debates, as reflected by polls that suggest likability and good acting, and egregious slips of the tongue, matter to voters in deciding the winner. Of course, the real litmus test of leadership has little to do with such traits and gaffes. Leadership, whether in private or public activities, includes negotiating skills, having a vision and the ability to carry it out, and other characteristics that result in a record that can be evaluated.

In 1960, TV reinforced the thesis that form is more important than substance. Kennedy appeared rested and vigorous, in sharp contrast to Nixon’s tired, sweaty and worn look, irrespective of the arguments they espoused. Radio listeners, in fact, gave Nixon the edge.

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To be sure, evaluating presidential leadership in terms of a candidate’s negotiating skills and record is also difficult. But there were no TV debates in 1964, 1968 and 1972, among the most turbulent times in our history, and the country survived. And it’s little wonder that in 1980 Ronald Reagan fared so well in his debates. He was, after all, an actor quite skilled in speech and dramatic nuance.

What is worse today is the media absurdity preceding the debates that mars objectivity, as illustrated by a CNN poll conducted this month asking respondents to pick a debate winner. Then there’s the problem, illustrated by past debates, of audiences that can’t be controlled in terms of fairness to both candidates, moderators who can’t really enforce the time limits and counter-responses and, perhaps worst of all, can’t require that the candidates answer the specific question asked. On top of that, there’s the ever-present matter of bias in terms of the questions asked.

So how does the average American make a reasoned judgment on a candidate’s leadership skills and record? The same way that has punctuated our history since the era of Andrew Jackson: through campaign appearances and advertising. And in a presidential race that could end up with an estimated $6-billion price tag, voters will have plenty of opportunities to weigh the evidence.

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Perfect? No. But debates are more flawed as a critical component of how voters reach a final decision. And for some Americans, the three presidential debates, with the first one on Oct. 3, may be irrelevant. The District of Columbia and 32 states have early voting by mail or in person. Voting in North Carolina started Sept. 6, and as of last Sunday, 602 ballots had been returned to election officials.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian and professor emeritus at American University in Washington.