A Brief History of Presidential Debates

Lauren Lombardi '18, Writer

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Presidential debates. They were created so that the presidential candidates could talk about their plans and why they were the better choice for election day, but today they are considerably different. The first televised presidential debate was in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. In it, there was much less direct questioning of opponents methods. Now — especially during the current debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — there seems to be much less focus on the policies and plans of the candidates and more interrupting and slander between the debaters.

The origins of presidential dates came from none other than the great Abraham Lincoln. Before his presidency and during his run for Senator of Illinois, the first-ever formal debate was held between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, the incumbent Illinois Senator. They were very formal, with strict time limits and predetermined topics. There were seven debates total over the course of three months, all in different locations. Although this series didn’t pertain to a presidential election, the two still had the first formal debates in a United States election. The history of debates between vice president nominees is much shorter, with the first occurring between Bob Dole and Walter Mondale in 1976 and only one taking place every election season.

Now, with three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate every four years, a set of criteria has been established surrounding how candidates should walk, talk, and (allegedly) behave. The total number of interruptions that occurred in the first ever presidential election was inconsequential because of the cordial manner with which the opponents regarded each other, while the Trump versus Clinton debate totaled at 81 very malicious interruptions. Even the more recent debates (from the 1980s up to the 2008 presidential debate) it is clear that this year’s candidates are bringing more heat than anyone who came before them.

During the election of 1960, John F. Kennedy left his campaign trail two days early to practice for the first ever televised presidential debate, while Richard Nixon decided to continue on the trail until the day of the debate in Chicago. The debate, which was decidedly won by Kennedy, could be described in just one word, makeup. Kennedy was much younger than Nixon and used male makeup and a healthy tan to bolster his appearance, which translated well on television. Nixon, who, on the other hand, was naturally pale and hadn’t shaved, could only be described as gaunt and sallow, blending into the neutral background with his gray suit. People described Nixon as looking sickly and and unkempt because of his perpetual five o’clock shadow. Nowadays, the nominees typically prepare for days beforehand with their makeup done before all their televised events.  

There is no doubt the presidential debates have changed. The “correct” way to walk, talk, and smile has been analysed, but not is not always followed. Perhaps if there were a return to content, a focus on character, and discussion of issues that matter to voters, presidential debates would improve greatly.

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