The night that John Kennedy first debated Richard Nixon in 1960 was, in some ways, the night my life began. I might have only been 9 years old, but I was a strange 9 year-old. Even then, I knew that something with incredibly high stakes was unfolding, a real-time face-off that would have real consequences.
I was hooked. Debates became my Olympics, my World Series, my Super Bowl.
In graduate school, when I had to complete a so-called qualifying paper, I wrote a comprehensive review of the literature on the effects of presidential debates on voting behavior. And I watched and re-watched hours of debate video. I remember thinking how embarrassed I would be if anyone knew that I actually found video of the first Carter-Ford presidential debate to be entertaining.
I should confess that with all this work, I never really got very interested in the substance of these debates. To me, they were the highest form of theatrical, hand to hand combat, in which the weapons were impressions, body language, turns of phrases, and images. I loved the tension.
So why can’t I stand watching them anymore?
Any student of debates learns early on that many have been the occasion for inadvertent statements and other so-called “gotcha” moments. Candidates from both parties have accidentally made statements that quickly come to be seen as the “turning points” of campaigns. One candidate’s tongue slips, the other candidate pounces, and the world turns upside down.
I hate that. I hate that such an important decision can hinge on one unintentional mistake or misunderstanding.
I know that the counter-argument is that debates are precisely the high-stakes situations in which a person’s real feelings and attitudes are revealed. That might be so. But what about the slip-up that comes out in a way that does not reflect the views of a candidate? What about a simple mistake?
Do we really want to allow these moments to change the course of history?
I have always felt that the most unfair example of these “gotcha” moments took place in the 1976 debates between President Gerald Ford and Governor Jimmy Carter. At one point, President Ford, in response to a question about the Soviet Union, stated:
“There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.”
Carter argued that Ford didn’t understand the full extent of the domination exerted by the Soviets in Eastern Europe. Yet it has always seemed perfectly clear to me that what Ford meant to suggest was that the United States refused to concede that the domination was a permanent reality. And that the people in those countries had not accepted this domination.
But the “Ford Doesn’t Get the Soviets” narrative caught on. My candidate – Carter — won. I guess I shouldn’t complain.
That may be ancient history. But it is also the reason I can no longer watch debates. We are still a people who love the politics of the car crash. We love the possibility that a collision could occur at any moment. We watch politics as if it was the NASCAR title rather our future on the line.
And I simply can no longer stand the tension of watching an event that might turn on a “gotcha” moment, on a slip of the tongue, rather than a well-crafted argument.
I am glad we have debates. They are about more than “gotcha” moments. Everybody should watch them. The enormous audiences may be as close as we come to a collective, national, civic gathering.
I just won’t be there with you. Too nerve-wracking.