Virtual Presidential Debates? We Had One in 1960

Virtual Presidential Debates? We Had One in 1960
AP Photo/Henry Burroughs. File
Virtual Presidential Debates? We Had One in 1960
AP Photo/Henry Burroughs. File
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We’re all trying to figure out when and how fast the country will reopen, not the least being the politicians and campaigners. Large rallies and pressing the flesh are still the lifeblood of campaigns, even in today’s virtual world. Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have been sidelined but are anxious to get back into the fray. The political parties are already discussing how national conventions might perform their legal and cheerleading duties remotely.

The other remaining big-ticket item is the presidential debates, which have evolved over the years to become a key part of national campaigns. Could they also be held remotely this year? History tells us it has happened before, and with very positive results.

On Oct. 13, 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. John Kennedy debated for a third time, this time a continent apart. Nixon was in a Los Angeles studio, Kennedy was in an identical studio in New York, and a panel of four questioners and moderator Jack Shadel of ABC were in a third location in Los Angeles. The split-screen technology allowing both candidates to be seen together was revolutionary for the day, and outside of a rare picture interruption, the debate and accompanying proceedings went very smoothly.

A review of that long-ago broadcast reveals that such a format transported to today’s hardball politics might very well serve to enlighten the public on the candidates’ views in a way that a more modern format would not. Here are just a few things that were missing from that debate:

  • A live audience. With no audience, there were fewer interruptions for cheering or opportunities for candidates seeking applause lines to energize supporters. Candidates didn’t talk over each other or interrupt, as the physical separation made it more difficult to do that. The result was that each had time to answer in complete sentences with appropriate nuance so voters could get a more comprehensive picture of their views. At one point, Nixon was answering yet another question about two islands off the coast of China that dominated the debate (Quemoy and Matsu) when Kennedy retorted, “You didn’t raise much objection when the Communists took over Cuba.” Bada bing! Such a statement with today’s live audience would have set off a prolonged celebration among the Democrats. The moment passed without incident. The point was made, and the home audience was free to judge its importance without prompting.
  • Stage stunts. There were no opportunities for candidates to wander across the stage, eyeing the opponent and interrupting or disrupting an answer. If a candidate became flustered, it was because he couldn’t handle a question, not because of stage antics. 
  • Reaction shots. While these weren’t prohibited in a remote forum, they were not an important part of the 1960 debate. (Thirty-two years later, in a 1992 televised town-hall-style debate, George H.W. Bush famously was caught looking at his watch as Bill Clinton completed an answer, and in a 2000 debate, the cameras showed Al Gore smirking during a question to George W. Bush. But it’s always been unclear how much the public noticed or even cared.)

Here’s what the remote format did include:

  • A moderator who ran the proceedings and didn’t lecture the candidates. This was due in no small part to the absence of an audience and the fact the moderator didn’t have to police candidates interrupting and talking over each other. 
  • A format that emphasized substance. Candidates were asked alternating questions. The first candidate had 2 ½ minutes to answer and the second a rebuttal of 90 seconds. You can say quite a bit in that amount of time. These two future presidents revealed a lot about actions they would take later when in office. Nixon answered a question about the gold standard, for instance. Eleven years later, he would sever the historic link between the dollar and gold. At another point, he seemed to accept the logic of the so-called “Domino Theory,” which held that unmet Communist aggression against one country would invite further aggression. Kennedy repeatedly vowed to oppose Chinese Communist aggression in Asia, laying the predicate for ultimate U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
  • They were products of the times, but Kennedy and Nixon answered questions substantively and with very few attacks on the other. At one point, both seemed to scold former President Harry Truman for his harsh language about Nixon and the Republicans. Nixon opined that a president had an obligation not to lose his temper in public and, ironically, that he should seek to bring “decency and good language” to the office.  

In the end the debate might not be seen as good television today, but it succeeded in providing valuable information about the candidates’ views and on the breadth of issues raised. Politics should be a little boring. Unlike what viewers hear on cable TV, most everyday decisions are not life and death, but involve shades of gray inherent in governing and public choices that face working politicians. A format that better highlights the candidates’ backgrounds, choices and what they consider to be most important would serve the public far better than repetitive talking points.

Let the virtual debates of 2020 begin.

Frank J. Donatelli was assistant for political and intergovernmental affairs for President Reagan and deputy chair of the Republican National Committee. He was involved in debate preparations for Reagan in 1984 and Sen. Bob Dole in 1996.

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