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History of Presidential Debates

October 2, 2007

We’ve been having plenty of discussion on presidential debates, but we haven’t really discussed the history of presidential debates, outside of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.
On September 26, 1960 the first general presidential debate was held between candidates Richard Nixon, and John F. Kennedy. This debate was also the first televised debate, previously debates had been broadcast over the radio, or were printed in major newspapers. Those who listened to the debate on radio believed Nixon to be the winner, however, those who watched the debate on television viewed JFK as the victor of the debate. On screen JFK appeared relaxed, comfortable, and generally in his element. Nixon on the other hand, had been hospitalized earlier in September and appeared sick and exhausted on-screen.
A connection can be drawn between Nixon’s unpreparedness for the medium of television and the refusal of candidates today to utilize Youtube. Gradually more and more presidential candidates are beginning to see the advantage of using youtube to reach out to a younger generation but the certainly took their own sweet time, and as James Kotecki has shown, the majority of the candidates do not use youtube to the best of their advantage.
Although the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate was the first official presidential debate, there are several other debates which served as forerunners to our current conception of today’s presidential debates. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 are a prime example. Although no television or radio existed at the time to broadcast the debates, newspapers printed the debates, and many people took a serious interest in the debates.
Following the presidential debates of there were no debates held for 1964, 1968, and 1972. The election of 1976 saw televised presidential debates between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Since 1976 every presidential election has had at least one presidential debate, the majority of elections have had more than one debate.
A problem now rises from reading this history. Although we believe that there has been a long history of presidential debate, these debates have only been around since 1960 elections. There are other debates which do set some precedent as the Lincoln-Douglas debate did, but in reality there is little for us to compare today’s presidential debates to.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Chr1sAU permalink
    October 2, 2007 7:55 am

    Good point bonzo, you’re right in saying that this country doesn’t have much experience when it comes to presidential debates. We tend to take for granted the things which are familiar to us, such as technology. This brought up an interesting point you mentioned – that Nixon’s nervousness is similar to many candidate’s refusing to take full advantage of the power of the internet (such as YouTube).
    Presidential debates were a new creation of the TV age, and right now we are experiencing another technological breakthrough – the internet. It’s almost as if history’s repeating itself.. hopefully this time the candidates will learn from their predecessor’s mistakes and embrace the technology – not fear it. It is our future after all.
    The topic of the history of the debates other than the Lincoln-Douglass debates is also another thing I think we should further examine.
    Now, while debates often give voters a chance to compare one candidate directly against another, debates rarely make or break a candidate. They are generally good for candidates to point out each other’s weaknesses, however they can be terribly inaccurate.
    Like Newt Gingrich said at the National Press Club, if we hold the candidates to their 30-second sound byte made five years ago when it comes to a complicated topic such as the war in Iraq, and if in the last five years they have changed their minds, we say they “flip-flopped,” what good are these debates??
    But I digress.. back to the history.
    In 1980 and 1984 we had a movie star debate. Ronald Reagan vs. Jimmy Carter. Reagan was anything but camera shy, and as a CNN article describes, “Reagan again used humor to allay fears that he was too old to be president: “I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” That remark drew a hearty laugh from the audience and from Democratic opponent Walter Mondale, too.”
    I got a kick out of that too.

    Well I don’t want to blog myself dry.. Need to leave some for next time. Good post bonzo.

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