Viewers who stayed tuned to network television immediately following the first Kennedy-Nixon debate on September 26, 1960, saw the Original Amateur Hour on ABC, Jackpot Bowling Starring Milton Berle on NBC, or a prerecorded interview with Lyndon Johnson on CBS. In that unenlightened time when the network news broadcasts lasted only 15 minutes, people had to wait until they read the newspapers the next morning to be told what they had seen.
Stranger still, at least from the vantage point of the 2000 presidential campaign, is the almost complete absence of predebate coverage in 1960--even on the day of the event. Newspapers buried the story deep in their front sections, if they mentioned it at all, and the network newscasts barely squeezed it into the middle of their 15 minutes. There was no discussion of the campaigns' negotiations over the schedule, sites, staging, and format, no semipublic jockeying for competitive advantage, no attempt to manipulate the public's expectations by exaggerating the opponents' debating prowess--in short, no coverage of what has come to be called the "debate over the debates." Only since 1976, explains Alan Schroeder in his timely and informative Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV, have journalists and campaign officials "been coconspirators in this game of brinksmanship," performing "a feverish dance of expectations-setting."
This year the actual debates are almost an anticlimax after the weeks-long version of this game and dance. The "debate over the debates" is now a lead story of the post-convention period. The Bush campaign concedes that Gore is the better debater, thereby making Bush the automatic winner if he can succeed in putting together a few complete sentences, even as its negotiators dicker for a Bush-friendly venue, moderator, and length (Larry King Live and Meet the Press). The Gore campaign takes the high road by insisting on the sponsorship of the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, confident in the knowledge that Bush, son of the 1992 campaign's "Chicken George," will ultimately agree to face off. "By 1996," writes Schroeder, "every development in the debate over debates merited a news conference, as the media beast demanded a stepped-up schedule of feedings." That beast was even hungrier in 2000.
Since "presidential debates are best apprehended as television shows," Schroeder, who teaches journalism at Northeastern University, organizes his book in television terms: preproduction--including predebate debates, negotiations, and news coverage; production--the broadcasts themselves, with capsule histories of every debater's performance (vice presidential as well as presidential candidates) from John F. Kennedy to Jack Kemp; and postproduction--spin, instant analysis, punditry, polls, and audience responses.
Presidential Debates is rich with anecdotes. Some are familiar--Nixon's "haggard" appearance, Ford's denial of the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, Carter's consultation with Amy about nuclear proliferation, Reagan's wandering down the Pacific Coast Highway, Dukakis's "clinical" response to his wife's hypothetical rape and murder, Quayle's pronounced nonresemblance to Jack Kennedy. Other moments are less well-known. In 1992 the Bush-Quayle campaign wanted clearance for Quayle to hold up and read from a copy of Gore's "controversial" book Earth in the Balance. "Gore negotiators agreed," recounts Schroeder, "on the condition that their man could bring a potato, the vegetable Quayle had misspelled in a widely publicized incident earlier in the year. The matter was quickly dropped."
While the Kennedy-Nixon joint appearance now looks almost antediluvian, it struck the keynote of every subsequent debate: The "winner" is the better performer, the candidate who looks and acts more presidential on this TV show. Schroeder quotes Daniel Boorstin writing in 1962: "If we test presidential candidates by their talents on TV quiz performances, we will, of course, choose presidents for precisely these qualifications."
The history that Schroeder ably traces is a depressing one. If there is a central tale here, it is the story of the "raped and murdered" exchange in the second 1988 Dukakis-Bush debate. Bernard Shaw's despicable, pandering question--the first of the debate--and Dukakis's unemotional answer were nirvana for the sound-bite editors. The episode is more typical than exceptional; it dramatically captures the media's obsession with candidates' personalities, and their eagerness to discover, invent, and exploit "gaffes." The journalist Roger Simon captured the essence of the "raped and murdered" episode: "This is what campaigning had come down to. Anyone who wanted to be the leader of a great nation and do great things ... had to show emotion. And in order to be likable, he had to tell people that, yes, he would want to take a human life."
Schroeder recognizes the difficulties of expecting journalists to address "the needs of the public" when their function as questioners is to help create an entertaining show. Since the press "puts a premium on novelty" and on celebrating itself, the tendency of panelists has been "to play 'gotcha,'" to ask "convoluted and tendentious" questions, and to "focus too narrowly on the day's headlines." What he frankly calls "the incestuous nature of campaign press relations" perpetuates "a closed conversation between insiders that only secondarily benefits the electorate."
Forthright and convincing in its criticisms of the campaigns and the media, Presidential Debates stumbles in its attempts to be optimistic. Schroeder wants to believe that some "little arrows of verisimilitude" pierce through all the coaching, connivance, and contrivance. His primary example is the first Mondale-Reagan debate. "If the images emanating from the screen in 1984 were trying to tell the audience that its leader was in an early stage of mental decline," he writes, "then TV debates were doing their job, even if the news did not fully sink in." But images don't have volition or agency, and even if they did, the reality of Reagan's mental decline didn't matter at all in the election. According to an instant post-debate poll, Reagan had won. Once the commentary began, Mondale became the winner: by one point an hour after the debate, by 49 points two days later. So journalists and pundits, not the images themselves, raised the "age issue"--which just as quickly vanished after Reagan's carefully scripted quip in the second debate: "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." The verisimilitudinous arrow stuck only in those of us who already knew that Reagan was losing it (or never had it).
Schroeder's claim that "[b]y any index, presidential debates are financially incorruptible" is equally wishful; they are "untainted by money" only in the narrowest sense. It's true that money can't buy a good performance, can't guarantee the on-message flawlessness of campaign ads. But as Ralph Nader has pointed out, the Commission on Presidential Debates, which supposedly represents the public interest in arranging the debates, is controlled by the corporate-funded Democratic and Republican parties. "Gore and Bush," Nader insisted, "should issue a joint demand that the Commission open the debates and reject the sponsorship of the debates by beer companies and other corporate donors." Schroeder himself makes a convincing case that we should think of debates as extended media productions. Even if the actual 60- or 90-minute broadcasts aren't "given over to advertising," even if they "cut into profits," the extended productions are anything but "a departure from the usual bottom-line mentality." Everything is shaped to entice viewers to keep tuning in. We'll know that the bottom line no longer matters when all the networks join C-SPAN in airing only "raw pictures and sound" and dispense with "the predictable chatter of well-paid talking heads."
Every presidential campaign since 1976 has featured at least one debate, and as Schroeder points out, candidates can no longer refuse to participate. But there isn't much reason to think that the public's growing sense of debates as an entitlement will fundamentally transform them. The campaigns still set the rules. They chose Jim Lehrer as the moderator for all three debates this year; they decided that Lehrer would screen the questions from the "town hall" audience. In the meantime, we can take some comfort in the fact "that although debates have been highly watched, they have not been excessively influential." In other words, if the first 1984 debate didn't make Reagan lose the election, neither did the second 1988 debate account for Dukakis's defeat. And those of us who don't get C-SPAN can wax nostalgic for TV's less sophisticated past, when instead of George Will popping up after the event we got to watch Uncle Miltie. ¤