I was born in 1953. I have to admit I don’t recall the sole, scintillating presidential debate in 1956, between the two Democrats competing for the nomination, Stevenson and Kefauver. There was no public debate between the two eventual nominees, Stevenson and Eisenhower (I thought I had forgotten that one too). Those two had run against each other four years earlier and, of course, the results were the same in 1956. That’s so long ago, though, that Alaska and Hawaii weren’t even states yet. Is that possible? It was also the last election when one of the candidates was born in the 19th century. Yes, a long time ago.
1960 brought us Nixon versus Kennedy and their four Great Debates. I was just about to turn seven at the time and I must have been watching Gilligan’s Island or I Dream of Jeannie instead on those four nights. I suppose my parents were too permissive and caved to my wishes. I did, after all, actually dream of Jeannie. Kennedy is thought to have won those debates, unless one listened on the radio and didn’t have to watch Vice President Nixon who apparently looked like he was one foot away from death’s doorstep. Among radio listeners, the consensus was that Nixon was the winner. Today, many suggest that the debate had little to do with the outcome, but only confirmed voter’s choices. And remember, this debate was actually held before the invention of Twitter. It’s hard to imagine we even allowed elections to be held. Today, I just don’t believe that there’s anyone who hasn’t really made his or her mind up. I certainly have not met them. This election has been going on for years by now, with saturated coverage on the 24-7 “news” channels, even if the Republican candidate wasn’t selected until months ago.
Back to the debates. Does anyone recall the presidential debates in ’64, ’68, and ’72? I sort of think I did until I discovered there actually weren’t any. So much for the reliability of eyewitness testimony. I would have sworn that… That takes us to 1976. This is getting fun. Not only was there a presidential debate that year, the first in 16 years, but the VP’s also debated, for the first time. Dole v. Mondale. I am pretty sure if I was watching that one, I feel asleep. But on the presidential side, there were three full debates in primetime. Well, actually not full. During the first debate, held in Philadelphia, the sound went off for 27 minutes. Each candidate just stood there, frozen, for fear they would be caught on tape doing something less than presidential. Gripping TV, I am sure.
1980 brought us Reagan’s famous retort to President Carter, “There you go again”, a winning line for sure, but there was also the Iran hostage crisis, runaway inflation and gas prices that didn’t help the incumbent who got slaughtered in the election. I could go on and I am sure there are debates that tend to run counter to my point — there’s always Rick Perry’s “There are three departments I would abolish; I just can’t recall that third one right now.” But, contrary to everything I read today about the first of the three debates this year, I don’t believe Romney won anything last night. Well, maybe he won the “I Can Actually Sometimes Sound Like A Moderate Democrat Award,” but I don’t really think that dogs going to hunt with too many folks. Romney’s veered too far off for too long toward the radical wing of his party for him to veer back to the center now. That’s my take anyway. He performed well, I think. I will admit he surprsied me some. But as I wrote above, we have been having at this election for years now, ever since Obama was elected, and the two parties fundamentally view the world differently. That’s o.k. by me. That’s democracy at work (at least it would be if so much money wasn’t being spent by a few to influence the election). That bad Supreme Court decision aside, we have a very clear choice in this election and nothing about last night changed that choice.
Lawrence M. Schall
Oglethorpe University, Atlanta, GA 30319