Go to YouTube and watch the 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. You’ll be struck by the fuzzy black and white video, the almost comically young-looking candidates and the background audio.
The debates were held on a closed set. There were five journalists, including a very quiet moderator named Howard K. Smith of CBS. Smith didn’t preen. The soft-spoken Louisianan was a professional who had worked with news legend Edward R. Murrow, and made sure candidates followed the clock. The journalists posed questions about public policy.
No applause. No cheering. No moaning. No catcalls.
Nixon did not note the size of Kennedy’s hands. Kennedy didn’t call Nixon “Lyin’ Dick,” or “Little Richard.” The candidates answered respectfully, deferentially. Nixon and Kennedy once had adjoining offices in the U.S. Senate.
Fast-forward 55 years later to the wham-bam spiraling color graphics, buzzers, embarrassing public feuds between questioners and candidates, and all the attendant ratings-grabbing foofaraw.
The presidential campaign debate in the fall, as administered by the Commission on Presidential Debates, has a strict no-applause rule. It works. Sometimes there is light interaction with the audience, but mostly it’s two people at lecterns answering questions.
The 2000 vice presidential debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman was a model. They sat at a table, across from questioners. It was civil, (vice) presidential, and worthy of the office they were seeking.
A question to ask yourself in most situations is this: Who’s making money on the deal?
CNN is. Fox News is. MSNBC is. CNBC is. Univision is. CBS is. ABC is. They’re profiting massively from the theater of the absurd they build the sets to accommodate. The voters, on the other hand, are not.
If you go to the Smithsonian today, you can see the spare modernist chairs and the slim lecterns that look as if they required a rather short Ikea construction session.
Now? Massive sets, lecterns that look like Millenium Falcons, theme music, opening promos that are reminiscent of a Pacquaio fight, or a UFC match. Oh, and a requisite lugubrious game show host who cannot but help becoming part of the story. Only Vanna White is AWOL.
To be sure, it’s entertaining. Many people seem to like the political pyrotechnics of this Roman gladiator/Wheel of Fortune approach. Not me. I don’t care about the size of someone’s hands, or stature.
Imagine putting the words of a current contender into the mouth of Kennedy or Nixon:
Kennedy: Look at Lyin’ Dick’s beard! His sweaty makeup is dripping off his face like an aging stripper. Low energy. His eyes shift more than a ’55 Chevy.
Nixon: There goes Little Jack with his poofy dyed hair. He must think he’s Elvis. Spoiled rich punk who lied about his war record and his Pulitzer Prize. Don’t get me started on his family values. Some Catholic. Give me a break.
Is this what we want? Is it what we deserve?
We require more sensory stimulation, more flash, more seizure-inducing lights akin to the opening of an NBA game. The electronic media have demeaned the process, and controlled and distorted it by saturation coverage of the candidates who are the most like them: television hucksters.
If we demanded a model for next time around, we should insist that the debates be held on a closed set with an audience that is silent or absent. And the cable and broadcast networks should not profit. They are, after all, public airwaves, or were.
These few steps will encourage something missing from this campaign season, dignity.