- GW Home
- About GW
- University Life
- News & Events
- Faculty And Staff
A Half Century of Presidential Debates
September 23, 2010
Kalb Report kicks off semester with program on history, future of presidential debates.
By Menachem Wecker
Last night’s Kalb Report began with a video clip of the 1960 presidential debate—the first ever televised—which drew 70 million viewers. NBC political correspondent Sander Vanocur told Richard Nixon that President Dwight Eisenhower had been unable or unwilling to cite a single major idea of Mr. Nixon’s that he had adopted.
“I’m wondering, sir, if you can clarify which version is correct,” Mr. Vanocur said, “the one put out by Republican campaign leaders or the one put out by President Eisenhower.”
When the clip finished, host Marvin Kalb turned to Mr. Vanocur, who was sitting on his right. “We have just established that you were there in 1960,” said Mr. Kalb. “Did you realize at the time that you were really involved in something that special?”
“No,” Mr. Vanocur responded immediately.
A call from NBC headquarters had summoned him from the campaign trail in Mississippi to Chicago for the debate, Mr. Vanocur said. He wrote his questions in a “lovely” dining car on the Illinois Central Railroad’s Panama Limited.
At the debate, John F. Kennedy was calm and collected, while Mr. Nixon, who injured his knee exiting the limousine and couldn’t shake a staph infection he’d caught in Georgia, was out of sorts.
When the debate finished, the entire place cleared out in 15 minutes. “There were no handlers around to tell you what you’d seen,” said Mr. Vanocur. “There wasn’t much aftermath to the whole thing, because nobody had ever done this before, so honestly I don’t think we knew what we were involved in.”
Three other panelists joined Mr. Vanocur on the Kalb Report: Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, a nonprofit that sponsors and hosts presidential debates; Mike McCurry, co-chairman of the commission and former press secretary for President Bill Clinton; and Bob Schieffer, CBS’ chief Washington correspondent and Face The Nation anchor.
According to Ms. Brown, televised debates have endured because viewers, both domestic and abroad, consider them a “uniquely valuable” part of the general election.
Since 1960, debates have been the “only time when the candidates come together and are in one forum answering the same questions with no handlers, no advanced knowledge of what’s going to be asked, and all the trapping of the campaign and advertisements are stripped away,” she said.
However “uniquely valuable,” presidential debates did not occur between 1960 and 1976, Mr. Kalb noted.
“These debates have happened, when they’ve happened, because both candidates thought, number one, they couldn’t escape it, or number two, it was in their interest to do it,” said Mr. Schieffer.
Mr. Vanocur said candidates today who tried to evade a debate would risk having their actions “misconstrued or construed” as being unfair to their opponents. Debates are “part of our life now,” he said.
A particularly interesting conversation centered on the moderator’s role in a presidential debate.
Mr. Schieffer, who moderated presidential debates in 2004 and 2008 and said he tried to pose questions and then keep quiet, said a moderator, who is familiar with the issues, is absolutely necessary. “You can’t have a football game without a referee,” he said.
“I know we have tweets, and I know we have Facebook and all of that, and I know everybody out there is just as smart as I am,” he said. “But I still think it helps to have somebody to funnel this all down and put some priority on what questions are asked.”
Mr. McCurry said an Oxford-style debate in 1988 between Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt and former Delaware Governor Pierre du Pont, in which the two traded rebuttals without a moderator, was a “wonderful, wonderful occasion.”
“You could do it with those two, because it was that kind of environment,” said Mr. McCurry, who was then one of Mr. Babbitt’s political strategists. “But in the context of a nationally televised debate, where millions and millions of Americans are watching … you need that independent editorial moderator.”
During the question and answer period, Andrew Kaplan, a writer and editor at the Department of Justice, asked why debates, even if they retain the moderator, don’t allow candidates to pose questions directly to each other.
“We’ve tried. We will continue to try,” said Ms. Brown. “The short story is that if you don’t have candidates, you don’t have a debate.” Candidates have refused to participate in debates with direct questions, she said.
Michael Freedman, executive producer of the Kalb Report, professor of media and public affairs and executive director of GW’s Global Media Institute, said Mr. Kalb demonstrated “the value of one of the key points of the discussion—the importance of the moderator serving facilitator,” and the “huge student turnout” invigorated the panel.
“This extraordinary panel seamlessly linked the past, present and future of presidential debates with depth, substance, unique insights and great humor,” said Mr. Freedman.
According to Mr. Freedman, the program was likely the only opportunity students would have to hear about the 1960 debate from a journalist who was a “key questioner.”
“To watch Sander Vanocur introduce himself on the grainy 1960 video and then to see him sitting on stage 50 years later—still as sharp as ever—was a very special moment, and I believe everyone in the room felt it.”
The Kalb Report, which is produced by GW’s Global Media Institute, the National Press Club and Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, is funded by a grant from Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
To return to the George Washington Today homepage, click here.