Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


As we head into the presidential debate zone…

A couple of favorite historical facts.

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

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.

Article continues after advertisement

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.