Presidential debates: Do they really mean anything?

In this 1960 file photo, Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., right, speaks and Vice President Richard M. Nixon listens during the fourth presidential debate from a New York studio.
In this 1960 file photo, Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass., right, speaks and Vice President Richard M. Nixon listens during the fourth presidential debate from a New York studio. Associated Press file

American politics were forever changed with the first nationally televised presidential debate, exactly 56 years ago Monday night.

As if to underscore debates’ enduring if dubious import in the country’s modern politics, this year’s pair of presidential wannabes will clash on Long Island for 90 minutes on the anniversary.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton each have much to prove – and disprove – during what was, in effect, a forerunner of reality TV. Initially, not much was expected of Trump, a rookie politician who turned that disadvantage around in the year of the outsider to defeat 16 far more experienced, qualified Republican Party opponents.

Trump arguably has the easier task, to appear well-behaved, informed, disciplined and, most importantly, presidential, as he did during a meeting with Mexico’s president early this month. The 70-year-old Trump needs to erase or at least dilute stark memories of outrageous, even crude, onstage comments and behavior last year.

No doubt Clinton, who has been practicing since midsummer, will attempt to bait him into missteps, as she promised during her July convention acceptance speech.

The woman has more former jobs on her résumé (first lady, senator, secretary of state) than anyone since President George H.W. Bush (World War II carrier pilot, House member, RNC chairman, CIA director, ambassador, vice president).

Trump has his behavior and four bankruptcies to answer for. Clinton’s 30 years in public life come with an enormous amount of baggage from Arkansas, her controversial years as first lady, eight years of Senate votes, four years of suspiciously lucrative private life and, most formidably, her record as architect of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

She was for the Iraq War before being opposed. She favored the hasty 2011 U.S. troop withdrawal from there that spawned the Islamic State. She led the fight for the disastrous Libyan war that left a lawless state for terrorists to roam, reduced security that led to the deadly Benghazi night and propagated the phony Muslim video cover story.

There are numerous allegations of pay-for-play at her State Department. Then, there’s the scandalous saga of her email controversy, the deletions, the misstatements about classification and so on. We’ll likely get her standard explanations, tedious by design to cause glazed eyes.

Most importantly, Clinton, who’s 16 months younger than Trump, must douse smoldering concerns over lingering health problems, her fainting, concussion, a wandering eye, blood clots, her aversion to drinking water and, as dramatically seen on disturbing video, a collapse on 9/11.

That was blamed on “pneumonia.” Which may be true, but the Clintons’ record on veracity prompts skepticism. Another televised coughing fit or an inexplicable pause could prove politically fatal.

Despite the volume of hype these next few days, presidential debates have hardly been decisive. First of all, they’re made-for-TV entertainment to give viewers a feel for candidates with the tempting possibility of a very public stumble.

As an aspiring politics junkie, I listened to that first debate 56 years ago. I knew Richard Nixon had won. The millions who watched, however, knew Nixon lost because his sweat and makeup failed to hide a 5 o’clock shadow. Watch the original 1960 debate and ask yourself if a rumpled, angular visage like awkward, but eloquent Abraham Lincoln could win now in an age where photogenic is often the prime attribute.

TV debates – with their 90-second opening statements, 30-second rebuttals and no aides at hand – have absolutely nothing to do with how a president operates.

Can you remember anything from past debates? Chances are, you recall one-liners, scripted and memorized in advance to make a candidate look quick.

And here’s a news flash to remember as you hear the winner and loser hailed and criticized in the aftermath: Debate winners are not necessarily election winners. Mitt Romney cleaned Obama’s clock in the Denver debate four years ago. As usual, the poll bounce was short-lived.

In 1984, Ronald Reagan blew all four tires in his first debate with Walter Mondale, appearing tired and all of his 73 years. He bounced back two weeks later with the disarming “quip” that he wouldn’t hold against Mondale the ex-vice president’s inexperience and youth; Fritz was 56 then.

Years later, Mondale told me that although he laughed on camera, he knew right then that he had lost. Indeed, he did. Reagan captured nearly 59 percent of the popular vote and the most electoral votes in history, 525 of 538. Mondale won but one state, Minnesota, and that by only 3,671 votes.

This year’s second debate is Sunday, Oct. 9, in St. Louis. The third is Wednesday, Oct. 19, in Las Vegas. You will hear that each is critical.

Andrew Malcolm began writing on U.S. politics in 1968. Follow him on Twitter @AHMalcolm. Contact him at