Woster: The downward trend of debates


When I heard that the second Trump-Biden campaign debate got cancelled, my first thought was, “Well, it wouldn’t have matched Nixon-Kennedy in 1960, anyway.’’

I hadn’t thought of that old campaign for a while. Then I read an article about how one of the three debates between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and then-Sen. John F. Kennedy was conducted virtually. People didn’t use the word virtual back then, of course. They just knew that the candidates appeared on television by split screen; Nixon in Los Angeles and Kennedy in New York City. The moderator asked the questions from Chicago.

I don’t recall details of the debate. It was the fall of my junior year in high school. I was 16. I had bigger worries, like the basketball team, chords on my Montgomery Ward guitar, the brown-eyed sophomore girl who sat ahead of me in study hall. I remember Kennedy looked young. I wanted his haircut. Nixon looked old. (Which is strange, because Nixon was just 47 and Kennedy 43.) The candidates treated each other with respect. That’s how folks acted in public back then.

I knew little about national politics. I liked Dwight Eisenhower, the outgoing president, but that was based mostly on his appearance as a kindly grandfather and his record as the general who directed the Allies to victory in the war in Europe. I knew some farmers around these parts threw eggs at Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, but I didn’t understand why.

That was about the time I was starting to take an interest in politics, though. I trace that interest to the year earlier, when I read a book by Allen Drury called “Advise and Consent.’’ Drury wrote the story of a fictional nominee for secretary of state. Robert Leffingwell was considered too liberal, maybe a Communist, by conservatives in the Senate, and the book dealt with the maneuvering, double-dealing and deceit that swirled around the confirmation process. I found it fascinating, and gradually I started paying attention - to national politics first, but eventually in a mildly interested way to state politics.


My interest in national politics grew – naturally enough, I suppose – during my college years as the Selective Service card I carried became a real thing, as Vietnam and civil rights and the '60s drug scene split the country. I read the news and listened to evening broadcasts. And, while presidential debates fell out of favor for a few years, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford restarted the process in 1976, and I watched.

Those debates were relatively low-key. The moderators moderated, the audiences watched quietly and the candidates generally respected the process. They seemed to listen to the questions and usually tried to answer the actual questions asked. In my memory, the candidates abided by the time limits, even when they weren’t done with what they wanted to say. If they hadn’t completed an answer, it was on them for not getting to the point, not on the moderator or the other candidate. It was kind of the way things used to be when I’d take a timed test and not finish – my bad, not the fault of the test.

Sure, the candidates did what they could to shine a positive light on their responses. It’s true that a campaign debate should be somewhat like a job interview. The candidate wants a job. The voters own the business. The owners want to know why the candidate would be a good hire. The candidate, like anyone applying for any job, wants to impress.

In recent campaigns, as an owner of the business, I’ve been unimpressed by the job applicants. I’ve learned little I didn’t know, and I’ve been turned off by shouting, interruptions and personal attacks. It’s worse today, but it’s been trending this way for a while. Every question draws a canned talking-point response. I come away with my feelings about the candidates unchanged.

That makes me cynical. I suppose I should want to watch debates. Here’s the thing, though. If I want to learn about candidates and campaigns, I can read stories by actual news reporters. If I want a campaign debate, I can pull up an old Nixon-Kennedy clip.

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