Candidate debates have created many memorable moments in American history, many of them arising from the televised debates of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Who, except those born after 1960, can forget the searing comparison between a cool, charming Democrat John Fitzgerald Kennedy and a scowling, sweating Richard Nixon, Republican, in the first-ever televised presidential debate. Kennedy stole the show and ultimately took the White House.
Jon Meacham, on The Opinion Page of The New York Times of Oct. 28, 2011, cited Plutarch: "He once wrote that we could learn more from a leader’s offhand remark or a small personal moment than we could from all the great histories of all the great battles."
Kathleen Hall Jamison, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, wrote on the same day, "Better than other forms of campaign communication, debates reveal the candidates’ communicative strengths and weaknesses and their command of the issues."
Another contributor that day was Ohio University professor Alonzo Hamby, who said, "Clearly quite a number of past chief executives would have been TV washouts." Jefferson, he said, was a terrible speaker who, according to presidential advisor David Gergen, gave only two speeches, his inaugurals, in eight years.
Hamby said Andrew Jackson was "prone to choke up with rage," and John Quincy Adams was "insufferably pedantic."
However, Gergen, on the same page, wrote, "The general rule holds: the better a candidate at speaking and debating, the more likely success."
In 1980 and 1984, Ronald Reagan demonstrated the power of his personality in debates against different candidates.
An assertive and aggressive President Jimmy Carter was seeking re-election in 1980.
Reagan blunted his attacks with a genial, "there you go again," sidelining Carter’s offensive. Carter lost the election.
In 1984, facing Democrat Walter Mondale, Reagan was the oldest presidential candidate in history.
Recounting the debate, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recalls that the moderator asked Reagan, "Do you think age is a problem?" Reagan offered a disarming comeback that diffused the issue: "I will not exploit … my opponent’s youth and inexperience."
Inexperience and incompetence were clear when presidential candidate Ross Perot’s VP pick in 1992, Admiral James Stockdale, famously asked in a debate with Al Gore: "Who am I? what am I doing here?"
Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, Democratic vice presidential candidate against Republican Dan Quayle in 1988, delivered a knockout blow in their debate when Quayle claimed the mantle of John F. Kennedy.
"You’re no Jack Kennedy," Bentsen, a Kennedy friend, admonished Quayle.
In 2011, Republican presidential candidates as well as viewers suffered through 17 debates that ultimately backfired: too much of a "good thing," it seems.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry was expected to lead the pack based on his strong home-state record, but in the glare of network spotlights, he cratered. His verbal skills and memory failed him miserably.
The eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, careened from a moderate, which he is, to a conservative caricature, but never found a steady footing.
Today’s debates and debaters are pikers compared to the Lincoln-Douglas Illinois debates of 1858 when the two held seven debates, lasting three hours each. Political debates are part of our tradition and history.
Even candidate forums, although not debates per se, give voters a chance to compare their choices head-to-head.
They’re live and unscripted, enabling unfettered comparisons.
The value of campaigning door-to-door, especially in a small town, can’t be undervalued, but it doesn’t hold any candidate accountable for what is said from one doorstep to another.
This newspaper has offered to host Covington’s two East Ward council candidates, one incumbent and one challenger, in a forum where voters can test impressions of them, compare their vision and proposals, and get answers to questions that matter to them.
The challenger is willing; but the incumbent is not. He was even given the chance to set the time and date, but still refused.
The challenger has a detailed website and blog posts. We can read about him and make contact.
The incumbent has no campaign website. We can’t read anything about him.
If you’re buying a car, a refrigerator, a mattress or an air conditioner, you can compare details online.
Not so in this election. Could it be the incumbent doesn’t want to discuss his record, has no new ideas, or thinks he’ll come up short in a face-to-face appearance?
If any of those is true, then he has chosen the better strategy for his campaign, but not what’s best for the voters.
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She can be reached at email@example.com.