With Kennedy/Nixon, it came down to a couple of things: 1) that Nixon's 5 o'clock shadow was not appealing on black and white television and, 2) that Kennedy's "youthfulness" or whatever it was, created the impression that he had "won" the debate, whether he did or didn't.
I am here to say that the notion of a televised debate as a way of determining which candidate would make the best president is wrong. And that watching debates is a complete waste of time.
Oh, I certainly get the importance of the Lincoln/Douglass debates way back when. The stakes. The level of oratory. The time frame and how it allowed for the full development of positions. The audience? Well, maybe, because if those in attendance could hang in for that, they certainly have a patience, a commitment, and a fortitude that we do not possess today.
A SIMPLE REALITY: The debate format in no way mirrors the behaviors that will be expected of a president or a vice-president. Being able to think quickly on one's feet may be a virtue in some jobs, say, a police officer or a stock trader, but a president doesn't have to do it. In fact, we don't want her or him to do it.
Instead, we want our president to make a reasoned judgment after a thorough presentation of all of the facts available from as many sources as are relevant.
The "winner" of a debate has not, by virtue of "winning", demonstrated presidential behavior. Sorry.
Add to that a couple of other realities. First, the debates that we have the opportunity to observe now have their winners and losers determined by polls, by phone call questions, by small moments and not by major policy clarifications. Sure, perception matters, but perception based on what? The sound byte? The bluster? The ability to get the audience to laugh or boo? The "Gotcha"?
Now, I'm not a big believer in the negativity of the Gotcha question. It seems these days that what qualifies as a Gotcha is a question that asks a candidate to come to terms with, to own or to try to explain away something that he or she previously said. Hey, it's the Information Age! We can access everything that anyone of any public status ever said. So he or she should have to explain.
But that doesn't validate the debate concept. People do misspeak. People do make Freudian slips. People do lose their cools, especially when they are constantly grilled by media.
The second reality is that, if the debate structure has any validity at all, then that is only true if there are two, or maybe three, people participating in the debate. I feel sorry for the Republican candidates trying to brand themselves in 8-10 minutes of speaking time during a 2-3 hour debate. And 11 debates? Really? Will there be anything left to say for that many debates? Heck, a season of Game Of Thrones only has 10 episodes and those are only an hour and sometimes they cover 800 pages of a novel and 7 kingdoms!
Those Lincoln/Douglas Debate viewers would be looking at over 24 hours of vapid Republicans, not because they are Republicans, but because they have so little time to say anything. Those Lincoln/Douglas debate attendees would be exhausted, despite the fortitude of their times.
My friend says that if we didn't have debates, then how would we get to know the candidates, but isn't that a false argument? We would get to know the candidates in whatever other ways there were besides debates, just as we do now, at least those of us who not watch debates.