Richard Nixon

Parallel Press Conferences Posing as Debates

What if the debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump was an actual debate where the candidates confronted each other rather than conducting parallel press conferences? Wouldn't that be nice. 

What if the debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump was an actual debate where the candidates confronted each other rather than conducting parallel press conferences? Wouldn't that be nice. 

Presidential debates command attention even if they are just parallel press conferences, not real debates.

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held a real debate 150 years ago. They posited, rebutted and pontificated. Modern-day debates just skip to the pontification. They don’t answer questions. Instead, they speak over questions to appease their political base.

When contemporary debates were introduced in the 1960 presidential race, the news media urged candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy to question each other, like Lincoln and Douglas. They balked, insisting the questions come from the news media. And thus the softball question was born.

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon squared off in the first televised presidential debate in 1960 after insisting reporters ask the questions so they could avoid confronting each other in true debate style.

John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon squared off in the first televised presidential debate in 1960 after insisting reporters ask the questions so they could avoid confronting each other in true debate style.

Debate moderators can’t win. Their questions are questioned. When they challenge candidate deflections and dissembling, they are blasted as aggressive. When they throw darts at one candidate and marshmallows at the other, they are lambasted as unfair – or inept. Ask Matt Lauer – he just moderated a candidate forum that was supposed to be a parallel press conference.

Few people think presidential debates determine the outcome of the race. At best, a candidate can make a clever comment that defuses a potential issue. Like Ronald Reagan promising not to hold Walter Mondale’s youthfulness against him. Bingo. The Reagan age issue disappeared as fast as Mondale’s chances to win. Lloyd Bentsen cut Dan Quayle down to size by telling him he was “no John Kennedy.”

At worst, a candidate can make a fatal gaffe, like Gerald Ford insisting there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Luckily, Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson wasn’t debating when he responded to a question on MSNBC's Morning Joe about how he would handle the conflict in Syria. His clueless answer: “What is Aleppo?"

Debates can underscore candidate tendencies, such as Chris Christie sounding like a prosecutor in a televised courtroom. Or Marco Rubio drinking water and sweating, Bernie Sanders waving his arms and Richard Nixon scowling. Nixon wanted the debate cameras to stay locked on whoever was speaking, not the other candidate’s reaction. He lost that debate and his scowling image became his campaign likeness.

The 2016 presidential candidates broke new ground. The 17-candidate GOP primary required a much larger stage and a lesser-card warm-up debate. The Democratic debate often crept into the policy weeds, requiring viewers to consult a political thesaurus to understand what in the world the candidates were talking about.

The tone of the debates this year has been decidedly uncivil. There was little love lost between Lincoln and Douglas, but they didn’t interrupt each other or hurl insults. That was reserved for the presidential primary debates. Policy discussions were a dreaded distraction. Viewership has never been higher as you pictured people leaning forward in their recliners waiting eagerly for another zinger. 

The bellicose theatrics of debates are egged on by social media. Millions of tweets are posted during debates that excoriate the candidates, the moderators and the crowd. The debates have become more like prize fights or celebrity survival races.

The first presidential debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump is less than two weeks away and anticipation is building, while expectations continue to drop. Clinton reportedly has been boning up for weeks. Trump is expected to wing it. Many assume the debate will feature Trump dodging substance and Clinton wallowing in it.

Harvard history professor Jill Lepore laments the fallen state of modern debates. In a recent article, Lepore quotes Walter Cronkite, “The debates are part of the unconscionable fraud our political campaigns have become” as candidates dictate terms that “defy meaningful discourse” and “sabotage the electoral process.”

Like presidential candidates before them, Clinton and Trump have circled each other to ensure the most favorable settings and least objectionable moderators. But Lepore has a plot with a historical precedent.

She suggests channeling Phil Donahue, who in the 1992 Democratic primary in New York introduced Bill Clinton and Jerry brown, then “sat back in his chair and never uttered another word. Under bright lights with no reputation-salvaging escape, Clinton and Brown were forced to address each other for an “unmoderated, uninterrupted” 90 minutes.

Can you imagine Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump asking each other questions and civilly talking about issues for 90 minutes? Interestingly enough, now Trump is also calling for a debate with no moderator. Maybe that's the format we should follow after all.

The Eloquent Listener

We have a lot of fast talkers, sweet talkers and trash talkers. We have few eloquent listeners.

”Eloquent” isn’t a word often used to modify “listener.” However, it is what the late Howard Baker, Jr., in the twilight of his life, described as his best virtue.

Eloquent listening isn’t about hearing what you want to hear or agreeing with everything that you do hear. Eloquent listening is all about hearing without malice.

Baker’s passage last week puts another punctuation mark on the apparently bygone era of conciliation. We no longer celebrate men who, in the words of Baker’s stepmother, resemble the Tennessee River, flowing exactly down the middle of the state.

Eulogies recalled Baker’s famous question that summed up the country’s curiosity about Watergate — “What did the President know and when did he know it? He was celebrated for his efforts as chief of staff under President Reagan for navigating the Iran-contra scandal.

The Soft-Spoken Legacy of George McGovern

George McGovern, who died over the weekend, is best known for his lopsided loss to Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election, but is less well known for some of the most formative and influential aspects of his life.

Born in rural South Dakota in 1922, the son of a minister who was a Republican, McGovern witnessed first-hand momentous events in the early part of the 20th Century, including the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and World War II.

McGovern is remembered for his lonely battle in Congress against waging war in Vietnam, but many forgot he was a WWII pilot who flew a B-24 Liberator on numerous missions over enemy territory, crash-landed on an island in the Adriatic and received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery.

Like the late Senator Mark Hatfield, who was stunned by the devastation he saw after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Japan, McGovern came to regard war as a last resort, not another diplomatic tool. Hatfield and McGovern were allies in their battle to end the war.

Most political observers view McGovern's improbable presidential campaign in 1972 as a colossal failure. Few expected the soft-spoken former college professor from the prairie to win the nomination. Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine was the frontrunner in a field that also included former Vice President Hubert Humphrey and segregationist George Wallace.

How McGovern won the nomination is his legacy, according to Scott Farris, the Portland-based author of "Almost President." He notes how McGovern rewrote the rules for nominating a presidential candidate in the Democratic Party and benefitted when he ran in 1972 by the rule changes that threw open the doors of participation to everyday Democrats, including women and minorities. Primaries and caucuses counted for more and deals in smoked-filled rooms all but disappeared.

The result was a boisterous convention that produced a platform calling for immediate U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, amnesty for war resisters, abolition of the draft and a full employment plank. Contentious floor debates delayed McGovern's acceptance speech into the wee hours of the next day, denying him his best chance to speak directly to millions of TV viewers.