As we head into the presidential debate zone…

REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
The stage being set up prior to rehearsals for Wednesday's presidential debate at the University of Denver.

A couple of favorite facts from U.S. debate history…

The Lincoln-Douglas debates were not, of course, the first presidential debates because they were not presidential debates at all. Abraham Lincoln (representing then-brand-new Republican Party) was seeking to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Stephen A. Douglas in 1858.

They debated seven times at various Illinois sites with no moderators, no questions, no amplification of their voices before big crowds of Illinoisans standing or sitting on their wagons. And here was the format: One of the candidates would open with a 60-minute statement. The other would rebut for 90 minutes. Then the first would have 30 minutes to reply. That’s it. Three hours.

Imagine the attention spans compared to today.

They were not, of course, broadcast or recorded, but they were taken down by shorthand and published in full in newspapers not only all over Illinois but all around the nation and, so far as we can tell, hungrily devoured by newspaper readers willing to read page after page of one very tall man and one very short one arguing about the Constitution and the Dred Scott decision and whether the nation could long endure, half slave and half free.

Douglas won the Senate election but lost the rematch two years later with the presidency on the line.

Fast-forward one century to the actual first debate ever between presidential candidates Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon. They would debate four times and their runningmates not at all (compared this to the more recent tradition of three meetings of the presidential candidates and one for the would-be veeps).

Kennedy and Nixon opened with eight-minute statements and closed with three minutes. That’s obviously a lot shorter than Lincoln-Douglas but you won’t hear any candidate ramble on anywhere near that long tonight. Kennedy opened, by the way, by quoting Lincoln on the “half-slave, half-free” bit, but he erred by saying it was part of the 1860 presidential election rhetoric. (It was from 1858, the famous “House Divided” speech.) But the fact-checkers didn’t nail him on it, because they hadn’t been invented.

If you have any interest in the opening statements, they’re available here.

But my favorite fact since I first stumbled on it years ago is this one. After the Kennedy-Nixon debates, there was no spin room and no post-debate coverage. The networks just resumed their regularly scheduled program which, in one case, was a celebrity bowling show. Viewers were stuck, at least until the next morning’s newspapers, with no one to tell them who won and who lost and what the key moments were except their family and friends or maybe even decide for themselves.

Tweet that.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/03/2012 - 09:24 am.


    does one make the ‘debaters’ stay on topic?
    More and more we just hear canned political speeches, ‘answering’ the question with whatever political statement the candidate (or his/her advisers) wishes to make. I suspect that Romney and Ryan will set some new records in this area.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/03/2012 - 10:04 am.

    It should be pretty clear to Romney that his chance of winning the race is getting pretty slim. The interesting thing will be what he does to try to turn it around in this debate. Shake the etch-a-sketch again and blur the differences, or double down on the harsh rhetoric of the debates.

    Lurking behind his performance will be the apocalyptic fears of Republicans who believe that the ends of democracy, the Constitution, America as-we-know-it and even Christianity will be heralded in by the re-election of Obama. Will he acknowledge those ideas in any way or will he attempt to tamp down those fears?

    There are a lot of people who have swallowed a lot lot of media about the devil-spawn of liberalism from Clinton on forward and I have a sense that their apocalyptic fervour will not abate with the re-election of Obama. Similar fervour was present before the Civil War, but much of that was mobilized in support of the Union cause ( This time the fervour is against the Union.

    The post-election time will be dangerous if there are no “reasonable” Republicans out front.

  3. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 10/03/2012 - 05:48 pm.

    As the moon rises, will there be a few surprises?

    One change:If the three-minute question response is extended to longer -like is it now to be extended 10, 15 minutes?- maybe the candidates can say something beyond simple programmed party lines?

    My Aunt Bertha says that Romney may have a problem then, since he hasn’t that much else to say or elaborate on; but then, who knows?

    The ‘translation’ by the moderators, whomever, of what was said as a ‘summing up’ after the debate, is sometimes more embarrassing to an informed viewer; and too often exposes the limitations of the media, trying to explain?

    It’s a wee bit Darwinian for the media to assume those who listen do not understand… which, by the way, will not be an ‘academic’ presentation, but one of carefully chosen words that convey what to expect from whomever hopes to sit in the big white house on Penn for the next four years?


    And then again, should one realistically consider the campaign, the political process is just a marketplace these days…get your tickets , a bag of popcorn and try to capture enough truth behind the words …

    Romney has fearful aspirations. I choose Obama and am more then willing to give him time to get us out of the tremendous mess left-overs still from the ‘George’s past follies’?

    Old Aunt Bertha butts in again and repeats her standard reprimand, “Wait and see..”

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