The State of the Presidential Debate
September 19, 2016/in Intelligence Squared US, The Rosenkranz Foundation
By Jill Lepore
This election’s first Presidential debate will be held on September 26th, the anniversary of the first televised Presidential debate, between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy, in 1960. Nixon and Kennedy met in a bare CBS studio in Chicago, without an audience; the event was broadcast, live, by CBS, NBC, and ABC. Each candidate made an eight-minute opening statement and a three-minute closing statement. The rules were the result of strenuous negotiating. The very scheduling required Congress to temporarily suspend an F.C.C. regulation granting equal time to all Presidential candidates (there were at least fourteen). Much of the negotiation involved seemingly little things. Nixon wanted no reaction shots; he wanted viewers to see only the guy who was talking. But Kennedy wanted them, and prevailed, with the concession that neither man be shown wiping the sweat from his face. Then there were bigger things. The networks wanted Nixon and Kennedy to question each other; both men insisted on taking questions from a panel of reporters, one from each network, a format that is more generally known as a parallel press conference. ABC refused to call the event a “debate”—the network billed it, instead, as a “joint appearance”—but everyone else did. Sixty-six million Americans watched Nixon scowl, and the misnomer stuck.
This year, the candidates will appear together on the stage of a university lecture hall. The event will be called a “debate” and it will be broadcast live, but it won’t really be a debate and a lot of people will watch clips later. There will be no commercials. Hillary Clinton will be there, overprepared; Donald Trump says the whole thing’s rigged, but he’d be hard-pressed to stay away. “There are those who will say it will be one of the highest-rated shows in television history, if not the highest,” he told the Washington Post. “It will be the most watched event in human history,” former Clinton adviser Paul Begala told me. “Bigger than the moon landing, the World Cup, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, and the latest royal wedding!” It will be gruelling. It will be maddening.
Presidential debates are more often lost than won. The gaffe costs more than exposition gains. It’s easy to practice your kicking; it’s harder to brace yourself for getting kicked. Over the summer, there were rumors that the Clinton campaign had arranged for Alan Dershowitz to play Trump during rehearsals. Nothing but rumors, Dershowitz told me, though he’d love to do it, and he knows how he’d do it, too. “I’d try to provoke her,” he said. “I’d ask about Bill and Monica. I’d ask about her health. Did she bang her head? Does she have blood clots?” The health of the candidates has been an issue during the campaign, proxies for their age: Trump is seventy, Clinton sixty-eight. Trump and Clinton and their key advisers, who like to emphasize their stamina, were kids when Nixon, then forty-seven, debated Kennedy, forty-three. Roger Ailes, who is helping Trump prepare against Clinton, is seventy-six. In the nineteen-sixties, when Ailes was just starting out, he told Nixon that he lost the election to Kennedy because he was lousy on television. He went on to found Fox News but was forced out this summer after an investigation into charges that he’d sexually harassed female employees. It may be that Ailes will advise Trump not to refer to his penis again on national television, but, honestly, who knows? The candidates are old. This era in American politics is new.
A third-party candidate, Gary Johnson or, less likely, Jill Stein, could be invited to this fall’s debates, depending on the polls. Probably there will be chairs, but that’s negotiable. Much, however, is not negotiable. The audience will be silent. Jim Lehrer, who has moderated more Presidential debates than anyone, and who used to be a marine, likes to tell the story of how he’d drill his audiences before each debate. He’d tell them, “If you don’t do what I say, if you cheer or anything like that, I’m going to stop the debate, and I’m going to take the time out of the guy you’re cheering for.” He once got Barbara Bush, sitting in the front row, to agree to write down the names of any infractors. “Trust me, you could hear a pin drop in that place for ninety minutes,” Lehrer says.
Online, though, the audience won’t hush up. In 2008, after Bob Schieffer, the longtime host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” moderated a debate between Obama and McCain, his staff gave him a sample of tweets. “Someone said I was one of those old duffers in the balcony on ‘The Muppet Show,’ ” Schieffer told me, laughing. “Someone else called me the Brad Pitt of Boca Raton.” Eight years later, the political pother is angrier and meaner. The virtual once imitated the real, what with “bulletin boards” and “chat rooms.” Lately, the real imitates the virtual. “The debate takes the form now of a thread,” Schieffer said, turning serious, when I asked him about the state of political argument. “Someone says something, and someone else says, ‘That’s stupid,’ and the next person says, ‘No, you’re stupid.’ ” Whatever’s going on, it’s getting worse.
This year’s primary debates broke ratings records, and they broke all records for god-awfulness, too. (The two are not unrelated.) The Presidential debates follow different rules, meant to insure fairness, gravity, and substance. The difference can be jarring. It’s like turning on “Cutthroat Kitchen,” expecting to see the host telling the contestants to make ice cream using traffic cones for bowls while wearing dog cones around their necks, only to find that all that’s on is “The Great British Baking Show,” the contestants cheering one another on while making crumpets and scones under a tent pitched in a field of daisies. The reason for the difference is that the primary debates are sponsored and run by the parties and by the media organizations that broadcast and profit from them, but the Presidential debates are governed by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Commission on Presidential Debates. The commission makes the schedule, chooses the venues, sets the rules, and picks the moderators, with an eye to a certain decorum, the state of the Union, the dignity of the office.
The commission is co-chaired by Frank Fahrenkopf, Jr., who used to be the chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Mike McCurry, who was once Bill Clinton’s press secretary. A few months back, I asked McCurry whether he thought Trump, if he got the nomination, would haggle over or flout the rules. McCurry laughed: “I will say that I just ordered ‘The Art of the Deal’ on Amazon.” Since then, Trump has complained about the schedule. “As usual, Hillary & the Dems are trying to rig the debates so 2 are up against major NFL games,” he tweeted in July. “Same as last time w/Bernie. Unacceptable!” Actually, the schedule for this fall’s debates was announced six months before the N.F.L. schedule. Still, the complaint doesn’t come out of nowhere. During the primary season, both Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley said the Democratic debates were rigged, since the schedule advantaged Clinton. (There’s no evidence for the charge. Hacked e-mails released by WikiLeaks demonstrate that the D.N.C. favored Clinton in a thousand ways, but, according to PolitiFact, the debate schedule wasn’t one of them.)
“They accomplished one thing,” Fahrenkopf said to me about the primary debates. “They made CNN and Fox a lot of money. ‘Candidate A said this about you, Candidate B.’ Jesus.” Or did they accomplish something more? “There are people who argue, ‘Oh, my God, these debates are coarsening the discourse,’ and ‘Oh, my God, these debates are distorting the process,’ ” Lehrer told me. “Hey, get over it!” Lehrer thinks that “the more people are talking, even sometimes over the top, or ill-informed, the better,” since even a debate that some viewers find vulgar or unhinged “exposes and illuminates, and people get something out of that.”
The real trouble is deeper and wider. Political argument has been having a terrible century. Instead of arguing, everyone from next-door neighbors to members of Congress has got used to doing the I.R.L. equivalent of posting to the comments section: serially fulminating. The U.S. Supreme Court is one Justice short of a full bench, limiting its ability to deliberate, because Senate Republicans refused to hold the hearings required in order to fill that seat. They’d rather do battle on Twitter. Democratic members of Congress, unable to get the House of Representatives to debate gun-control measures, held a sit-in, live-streamed on Periscope. At campaign events, and even at the nominating Conventions, protesters have tried to silence other people’s speech in the name of the First Amendment. On college campuses, administrators, faculty, and students who express unwelcome political views have been fired and expelled. Even high-school debate has come under sustained attack from students who, refusing to argue the assigned political topic, contest the rules. One in three Americans declines to discuss politics except in private; fewer than one in four ever talk with someone with whom they disagree politically; fewer than one in five have ever attended a problem-solving meeting, even online, with people holding views different from their own. What kind of democracy is that?
“Trump is a brawler,” Roger Stone said this summer, predicting that the Trump-Clinton debates will be bloodbaths. “Hillary’s a lawyer,” the Clinton people kept reminding me. “She’ll prosecute him.” Which of them has the advantage, going in, depends on which rules apply: the rules of battle or the rules of argument. In a boxing ring, a brawler beats a lawyer. In a courtroom, a lawyer beats a brawler. A debate hall is like a courtroom. But a political campaign is more like a boxing ring. The best Presidents—think of Lincoln, or L.B.J.—have been good at both: fleet, sure-footed, and unrelenting.
How to argue is something people are taught. You learn it by watching other people, at the breakfast table, or in school, or on TV, or, lately, online. It’s something you can get better at, with practice, or worse at, by imitating people who do it badly. More formal debate follows established rules and standards of evidence. For centuries, learning how to argue was the centerpiece of a liberal-arts education. (Malcolm X studied that kind of debate while he was in prison. “Once my feet got wet,” he said, “I was gone on debating.”) Etymologically and historically, the artes liberales are the arts acquired by people who are free, or liber. Debating, like voting, is a way for people to disagree without hitting one another or going to war: it’s the key to every institution that makes civic life possible, from courts to legislatures. Without debate, there can be no self-government. The United States is the product of debate. In 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention agreed “to argue without asperity, and to endeavor to convince the judgment without hurting the feelings of each other.” The next year, James Madison debated James Monroe for a congressional seat in Virginia. By the eighteen-thirties, debating classes were being offered as a form of civic education.
In 1858, tens of thousands of people watched Lincoln debate Douglas when the two competed for a Senate seat in Illinois. The opening speaker had sixty minutes, the second speaker had ninety minutes, and then the opening speaker had thirty more minutes. The really significant thing about the Lincoln-Douglas debates wasn’t the debates themselves but the fact that they were published two years later, when Lincoln and Douglas were running for President. The book was published in six states. Lincoln won all six and, with them, the election.
In the era of radio, debate entered American kitchens and parlors. In the nineteen-twenties, the League of Women Voters began staging debates between candidates and debates on issues and broadcasting them on the radio. When Herbert Hoover lobbied for the Federal Radio Act of 1927, which includes an equal-time rule known as Section 315, he said that broadcasting “the political debates that underlie political action” would make Americans “literally one people.” To counter Fascists’ use of the radio to indoctrinate, American broadcasters used the radio to foster disagreement. “America’s Town Meeting of the Air” débuted on NBC radio in 1935. Each broadcast began with a town crier ringing a bell and hollering, “Oyez! Oyez! Come to the old town hall and talk it over!” The programs adopted the Oxford-style debate, in which each side takes a position in answer to a proposition or a question, such as, “Does America need compulsory health insurance?” The program took pride in forcing the two parties to debate issues. As its moderator put it, “If we persist in the practice of Republicans reading only Republican newspapers, listening only to Republican speeches on the radio, attending only Republican political rallies, and mixing socially only with those of congenial views, and if Democrats . . . follow suit, we are sowing the seeds of the destruction of our democracy.”
This spirit did not extend to the Presidency. Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to debate, on the ground that he might let slip a state secret. In 1936, Republicans, frustrated, spliced bits of his speeches into a rebuttal made by the Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg and gave it to radio stations to broadcast as a “debate.” Sixty-six stations were supposed to air the program; twenty-one refused. In 1948, Thomas Dewey and Harold Stassen, competing for the Republican nomination, debated a single policy question on national radio: “Shall the Communist Party in the United States be outlawed?” But Eisenhower, like Roosevelt, declined invitations to debate on the radio.
After the television début of “Meet the Press,” in 1947, broadcast “debate” took the form of a panel of reporters asking a politician questions. Maybe McCarthyism got Americans worried about the state of debate, worried enough to insist that politicians talk to one another on television. “I would like to propose that we transform our circus-atmosphere presidential campaign into a great debate conducted in full view of all the people,” Adlai Stevenson wrote in 1959. The following year, Congress suspended the Section 315 rule, in order to allow Nixon to debate Kennedy.
“The TV debate was a bold innovation which is bound to be carried forward into future campaigns, and could not now be abandoned,” Walter Lippmann wrote. “From now on, it will be impossible for any candidate for any important office to avoid this kind of confrontation.” No general-election Presidential debate was held for the next sixteen years.
“Point Taken,” PBS’s new late-night public-affairs program, is a series of ten half-hour debates. It débuted in April. One of the show’s taglines is “Substance without the abuse.” Its intentions are unimpeachable. Denise DiIanni created the series, which is produced by WGBH, in Boston, and underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts. She told me that “Point Taken” is meant to be “counter-programming” to the mean-spirited and gridlocked political conversations you find everywhere else. “We would like, in a media landscape, to model what civil dialogue can look like,” she says.
The moderator of “Point Taken” is Carlos Watson, a graduate of Harvard and of Stanford Law School and a former political analyst and anchor for CNN and MSNBC. Forty-six, handsome, fiercely affable, he was wearing jeans and sneakers and a V-necked sweater the day I went to watch a taping. The question at hand: “Is technology making us smarter or dumber?” The stage was surrounded by giant computer screens; one screen displayed the word “smarter,” the other “dumber.” The Marist Institute conducts a public-opinion survey in advance of each episode, and the in-studio and online audiences are polled before and after the debate. Watson sits on a stool at the head of what looks like a dinner table, with four guests, two on each side of the issue. “Do they have to call us Team Dumber?” the startup guy, Jeff Glasse, stage-whispered to his teammate, the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin. Team Smarter was two women, Emily Dreyfuss, an editor at Wired, and Kathryn Finney, a founder of Digital Undivided. The conversation wasn’t a formal debate, although it observed a format. “Give me your top three points in thirty seconds,” Watson said. What followed was zippy and snappy and super-duper friendly and, as a matter of intellectual exchange, superficial. “Good point!” Watson would interrupt. The discussion soon became a debate about debate. Team Dumber argued that technology is narrowing our political vantage: “This election season, have you watched the people who disagree with you slowly disappear from your feed?”
The problem with “Point Taken” is the problem with a lot of proposed remedies to the coarseness of political debate: it wants everyone to be nice. “Let’s use our inside voices,” one plug for “Point Taken” reads. Defanged debate bears an uncomfortable resemblance to what’s known as Circle Time, a pedagogical practice that begins in preschool and can last through high school. It has three rules: “Only one person speaks at a time; everyone can have fun; no one can spoil anyone else’s fun.” The trouble, it seems, is finding a middle ground between Circle Time and a cage match. Disagreeing without being disagreeable, which is one of “Point Taken” ’s laudable objectives, has become difficult. That’s in part because, in a polarized political and media arena, both politicians and political commentators are rewarded for being outrageously disagreeable. But it’s also because some people think—and everything from Circle Time to the culture of trauma teaches them—that to disagree with them is to harm them.
“We are debating free speech because its values are under siege,” Wendy Kaminer said during an Intelligence Squared U.S. debate at Yale in March. Intelligence Squared has been hosting fantastic Oxford-style debates since 2006, underwritten by a New York philanthropist named Robert Rosenkranz. Its debates, which last for an hour and forty-five minutes, are moderated by ABC News’s John Donvan, broadcast on public radio, available as a podcast, and archived on YouTube. Teaming up with Kaminer to defend the resolution “Free Speech is threatened on campus,” John McWhorter argued that “many of the things that we’re being told we shouldn’t even discuss, and that the mere discussion of it constitutes a space becoming unsafe, are really things which, in an intelligent and moral environment, people will reasonably have discussions about.”
Inspired by Intelligence Squared, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education recently launched a series of Oxford-style debates on college campuses. The motto of the debates is “Free to Disagree!” Greg Lukianoff is the president of the foundation. (With Jonathan Haidt, Lukianoff wrote “The Coddling of the American Mind,” a spirited polemic about the decline of free speech on campus published in The Atlantic.) “Debate doesn’t have to be this miserable, burdensome thing,” Lukianoff told me. Like most people involved in the movement to revive debate, he thinks that what’s happening on college campuses can’t be separated from what’s happening on the campaign trail or during televised debates.
Intelligence Squared has gathered some sixty thousand signatures on a petition at Change.org, calling on the Commission on Presidential Debates to adopt Oxford rules, so that, during a series of hour-long debates on simple resolutions—“Give undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship” or “The United States intervenes abroad too often”—each candidate would make a seven-minute opening statement, and the two would then question each other. “The format and the strictures of debating on a specific motion allow an audience to listen to two sides of a debate,” Donvan told me. “And that’s twice as many sides as many people have ever heard.”
The first general-election Presidential debate after Nixon debated Kennedy was held in 1976, when Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter faced off. Kennedy had committed himself to debating Barry Goldwater. But after the assassination Lyndon B. Johnson refused, and in 1968 Nixon, advised by Ailes, followed his lead, ignoring the taunt when Humphrey called him “Sir Richard-the-Chicken-Hearted.” There was also a regulatory hurdle. Newton Minow, who had helped Adlai Stevenson write the speech in which he called for nationally televised political debates, became the chairman of the F.C.C. in 1961, and the next year he made a decision in a case involving Section 315—the equal-time rule—that debates are not covered under what is known as the “bona-fide news event” exception. This ruling made it harder to hold a debate, even if the incumbents had agreed to it, because there was no way to winnow the field of challengers owed equal time. “There is no decision I made in public life that I regret more,” Minow has said.
Meanwhile, televised debate adopted a new style. In 1965, James Baldwin defeated William F. Buckley, Jr., in an Oxford-style debate at Cambridge University; the topic was “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.”* The next year, Buckley launched “Firing Line,” adapting the form to a television studio, with its living-room intimacy. In 1968, when ABC didn’t have enough money to cover the Conventions gavel to gavel, the network hired Buckley and Gore Vidal to debate. During one of their exchanges, over Vietnam, Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi,” whereupon Buckley called Vidal a “queer.” And so it went.
Ford agreed to debate Carter in 1976 because he had no choice. He’d pardoned Nixon and fallen thirty points behind in the polls. Carter wanted to debate Ford because hardly anyone knew who Carter was. The League of Women Voters formed a steering committee, which included Minow, to help clear the regulatory hurdle. There remained the matter of the rules that the League negotiated with the candidates, including something known as the belt-buckle principle, which, according to Minow, “required each man’s lectern to intersect his torso at such a height as to make neither man appear taller than the other.” After the first of three debates, a lot of people complained that the candidates weren’t actually debating; they were answering questions from the reporters, in the style of “Meet the Press.” Minow asked the candidates to drop the panel format and talk to each other. Neither was willing to do so.
The League didn’t like the panel, either, but the long tradition of candidates’ refusing to participate made it easy for candidates to boycott. In 1980, when the independent candidate John Anderson ran against Carter and Reagan, the League ruled that, in order to participate in a general-election debate, a candidate had to have earned at least fifteen per cent in a national poll. As even pollsters admitted, this was unjustifiable, since polls are simply not reliable enough to support that decision. Nevertheless, Anderson met that bar and was invited to debate, whereupon Carter refused to participate. Carter called the Reagan-Anderson debate “the Great Republican Debate”; the whole affair became known as “the Great Debate Debate,” and it consumed more hours of news coverage than the Iran hostage crisis.
The Reagan Administration, keen to deregulate the F.C.C., proposed handing control of the debates to broadcasters. During Senate hearings, Dorothy Ridings, the president of the League of Women Voters, warned against that move: “Broadcasters are profit-making corporations operating in an extremely competitive setting, in which ratings assume utmost importance.” They would make a travesty of the debates, she predicted, not least because they’d agree to whatever terms the campaigns demanded. Also: “We firmly believe that those who report the news should not make the news.”
Much of what Ridings predicted has come to pass. Broadcasters got control of the primary debates, whose format they designed with an eye to driving ratings and raising advertising revenue. The networks’ practice of accommodating candidate demands during the primary debates spilled over into the negotiations undertaken by the League during the general election.
In 1984, the League allowed the Reagan and Mondale campaigns to veto format options and vet moderators. Reagan’s negotiator was Jim Baker; Mondale’s was Jim Johnson. Ridings’s notes from her meetings and telephone conversations with the two men are housed in the Schlesinger Library, at Radcliffe. September 7th: “Baker said the format is ‘almost non-negotiable. We’re not in the business of experimenting; we’re in the business of electing a president.’ ” September 8th: “Johnson also said they want us to hold out for a ‘moderator-only’ debate, and I repeated that unfortunately—while the moderator-only was what we had wanted—both campaigns had ruled that out so we had reluctantly agreed to go to the panel format.” September 11th: “Agreement on panel of four; each side contributes names and we choose two from each. Moderator: each side whispers in our ear the people they would not accept.” Names were mentioned; names were struck. Brit Hume? No. John Chancellor? No. What about some women, minorities? October 2nd: “Would try Cokie Roberts, Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer, Diane Sawyer and Lesley Stahl.” No. October 4th: “What about Bryant Gumbel? . . . Eliz. Drew?”
It was this state of affairs that, three years later, led Fahrenkopf, as the head of the R.N.C., and Paul Kirk, then the head of the D.N.C., to found the Commission on Presidential Debates. In 1988, the commission was supposed to sponsor the first Bush-Dukakis debate and the League the second. The two campaigns negotiated with each other about matters of format, and then delivered to both sponsors a Memorandum of Understanding dictating terms. Among its provisions was a ban on follow-up questions. Baker, who negotiated on behalf of Bush, later said this:
We got everything agreed to right down to the very end, and then they told us that they wanted to put a box, a little stand, underneath his, you know, where he would be. I said, “What? You want to put a box?” I said, “Your guy is running for president of the United States. What are you going to do when he meets with Gorbachev, bring out a little box for him to stand on so that he’s eye level with Gorbachev?” And they couldn’t respond to that. We finally let him have his box.
The League rejected the Memorandum of Understanding and withdrew its sponsorship of the debates. “It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions,” its press release read. “The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”
Dan Rather hosted the first of the 1988 Presidential debates, between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. Rather seemed embarrassed about it. “This will not be a debate in the sense the word is often used in the English language, because all of this is so tightly controlled by the candidates themselves and their managers,” he told the television audience. “These things have developed over the years into what some people believe can more accurately be described as a joint campaign appearance or an orchestrated news conference.” Meanwhile, backstage, Ailes gave Bush some last-minute advice. As governor of Massachusetts, Dukakis had urged the repeal of Colonial-era anti-sodomy laws; Ailes had produced a campaign ad suggesting that Dukakis supported bestiality. “If you get in trouble out there,” Ailes whispered in Bush’s ear, “just call him an animal fucker.”
If you read only the records of the Constitutional Convention and the Lincoln-Douglas debates, you’d have a pretty sophisticated understanding of American history and politics. The same cannot be said of watching any or all of the televised Presidential debates from 1976 to 2012. Still, the debates are important and illuminating, and they’ve become a regular part of the political process. No longer is there a debate, every four years, about whether the candidates will debate. Ridings, who serves on the commission, attributes this to the League. “The League was the laboratory,” she told me. But there’s still a lot of negotiating, despite the commission’s efforts to rein in the candidates. In 1992, Bill Clinton picked out very big stools, “designed to make Perot look like a kid,” according to a Clinton aide. By then, the Presidential debates were high stakes. It was the age of the zinger: Reagan’s “There you go again”; Lloyd Bentsen to Dan Quayle, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” There were gaffes, too, many of them having to do with the staging or the filming. Debating Clinton and Perot in a “town hall” format—taking questions from the audience, a format that Clinton loved and George H. W. Bush did not—Bush was caught on camera looking at his watch. He later admitted that he was probably thinking, “Only ten more minutes of this crap.”
Bush wasn’t alone. “The debates are part of the unconscionable fraud that our political campaigns have become,” Walter Cronkite wrote in 1998. “Here is a means to present to the American people a rational exposition of the major issues that face the nation, and the alternate approaches to their solution. Yet the candidates participate only with the guarantee of a format that defies meaningful discourse. They should be charged with sabotaging the electoral process.”
In theory, the commission no longer allows campaigns to dictate terms. A turning point came in 2004, when Vernon Jordan, on behalf of John Kerry, and Jim Baker, on behalf of George W. Bush, negotiated terms and delivered to the commission a thirty-two-page Memorandum of Understanding; the commission unanimously rejected it. Still, there’s usually a certain amount of tinkering at the last minute. In 2012, the commission arranged for the candidates to be seated at a table; Jim Lehrer agreed to moderate. But when Obama decided that he’d rather stand behind a lectern during the first debate, and Romney agreed, the commission caved. Lehrer considered backing out. He says that you can cover a lot more ground when people are sitting down, “because you can employ body language, you can move them along with a shake of your head, or with your eyes, which you cannot do in a podium format.” In the end, he agreed to the lecterns. He told me, “I had the right to say, ‘No, I’m not going to do it,’ but I said, ‘The hell with it, I’ll do it.’ ”
More than ten million tweets were posted during that debate, making it, at that point, the most tweeted-about political event in American history. Lehrer was criticized for not challenging the candidates. During the primary season, viewers had grown used to the way celebrity television personalities push and taunt the candidates, and didn’t realize that the rules set by the commission discourage that. Traffic cones and dog cones, scones and daisies.
This year, as is now customary, there will be three Presidential debates. “I will absolutely do three debates,” Trump said in August. “I want to debate very badly. But I have to see the conditions.” He wanted to “see who the moderators are,” he said. NBC’s Lester Holt will moderate the first debate, Fox News’s Chris Wallace the third. The second debate, moderated by Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz, will be a town hall. During the first and third debates, Holt and Wallace will ask the candidates questions in six fifteen-minute topic blocks, which is the commission’s best approximation of Oxford rules. “I am a firm believer in the Oxford style of debating,” McCurry told me. “In a perfect world, we’re looking for that. That to me would be more the ideal, not exactly Lincoln-Douglas, but as close as you could get.” On the whole, the commission’s efforts to get the candidates to argue with one another, over the issues, have failed. In 2008, Lehrer tried to get McCain and Obama to talk to each other; McCain simply wouldn’t do it.
There’s another way of getting the candidates to clash—boxing ring, courtroom, all at once. In 1992, the night before the New York Democratic primary, Phil Donahue hosted Democratic candidates Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown in a debate shown live on C-span. “I am pleased to present Governor Brown, and Governor Clinton,” Donahue said. Then he sat back in his chair and never uttered another word. Clinton and Brown talked to each other for forty-five minutes, unmoderated, and uninterrupted. “It was as good a conversation as I have ever seen,” Paul Begala told me, looking back. “Someone could try it this time,” Begala said. “The lights would go on and the moderator could say, ‘Madam Secretary, Mr. Trump, have a good conversation,’ ” and walk off. Begala laughed, picturing it. “Except no one could do that this time because Trump couldn’t sit and talk, civilly, for ninety minutes because, with Trump, you need a lion tamer, a whip, and a chair.” Except, maybe the electorate is the lion tamer, the whip, and the chair. Or maybe the electorate’s the lion, wild and prowling.
Madam Secretary, Mr. Trump: Have a good conversation. ♦
*An earlier version of this article misstated the topic of the debate.
Jill Lepore is a staff writer and a professor of history at Harvard. “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is her latest book.
This article appears in other versions of the September 19, 2016, issue, with the headline “The State of Debate.”