Presidential contenders George W. Bush and Al Gore would be wise to study this comprehensive history of televised presidential debates before facing off in front of the American public. While Alan Schroeder’s book is geared to an academic audience, the recent squabbles between the Gore and Bush camps over when and where they’ll debate proves that the issue is as timely as ever.
Schroeder gives us a rundown of some of the most egregious debate gaffes: Michael Dukakis reacting impassively to a question about his wife’s theoretical rape and murder; James Stockdale asking “Who am I? Why am I here?”; Dan Quayle likening himself to John Kennedy; and the most flagrant of them all, Richard Nixon’s failure to realize that image is everything.
Looking back on the first presidential debate between Nixon and Kennedy in September 1960, Nixon would later berate himself: “I had concentrated too much on substance and not enough on appearance. I should have remembered that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ ”
Indeed, more important than the debates themselves is the way that television has revolutionized the way in which we elect a president, and Schroeder brings the issue to the forefront. In TV debates, star power carries the day. As viewers decide which candidate should run the country, they are also electing a chief television personality. Reporters are equally swayed by Hollywood-style charisma.
“Sober-minded debaters like Dukakis, Carter and Gore operate at an automatic disadvantage in such a universe, where winning smiles and clever ripostes are the coin of the realm,” writes Schroeder. “Reporters prefer their candidates to fall into brasher, more stereotypical categories: stars (Reagan), buffoons (Quayle), or star-buffoons (Perot).”
And while we take it for granted that post-debate instant analysis has always existed, Schroeder reminds us that it was invented out of necessity — during a 27-minute audio gap that interrupted the first 1976 presidential debate, when network anchors and reporters were forced to fill air time with their impromptu observations.Thoroughly researched and concisely reported, “Forty Years of High-Risk TV” covers every area of the debates, from the early sparrings over location and format to post-debate news coverage. It concludes with this sobering thought: Despite the manipulation of the campaigns, institutional constraints and excessive media analysis, “televised presidential debates are still the best vehicle voters have to personally judge candidates for the White House.”