By Allen C. Guelzo
Sunday, February 3, 2008
On Aug. 21, 1858, two of the most ill-matched political candidates in the nation walked onto a hastily built platform in northern Illinois and created a legend. One of them was a second-tier Republican lawyer with big ambitions but little to show for them after 20 years of trying. His name was Abraham Lincoln.
After a flying start as a state representative, Lincoln had been elected to Congress in 1846. But after that everything petered out. A run for the U.S. Senate in 1855 failed after a strong early showing. In 1858 he was getting a second chance at it, but if he lost it would probably be his last. And since his opponent was Stephen A. Douglas, the most powerful man in the Senate and the best-known Democrat in the country, Lincoln's candidacy looked like just another forlorn hope.
A month into the campaign, lagging in visibility and short of funds, Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of debates -- outdoors, unrehearsed -- in seven locations around the state. At a time when popular community entertainments included mano-a-mano encounters such as wrestling, horse racing and knife fighting, one-on-one debating seemed a perfectly natural forum for political contests, too. And the Lincoln-Douglas debates certainly had their share of entertaining features. Brass bands hired by Republicans and Democrats struggled to drown each other out. Banners with raw sexual innuendoes and crude racial insults billowed over the heads of the crowds. At one debate, someone shied a melon at Douglas and struck him on the shoulder.
But what set the Lincoln-Douglas meetings apart from modern political debates was the seriousness with which the participants went at their task and the extent to which their audiences paid attention. Each debate featured an hour-long opening by one candidate (Lincoln and Douglas took turns as the leadoff), an hour-and-a-half reply from the other and then a half-hour rejoinder from the first speaker. And all seven debates had only one topic: slavery, and whether it should be legalized in the newly organized western territories. But far from being bored by these three-hour marathons, Illinoisans turned out in crowds of 15,000 to 20,000, listening with an intensity that would rival that of an "American Idol" audience.
Lincoln lost the election on a technicality. But not the debates. He came so close to upsetting the great Douglas that his name began appearing among the front-runners of the Republican Party, and in 1860 the Republicans nominated him as their presidential candidate.
The centennial of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1958 laid the ground for the head-to-head Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates in 1960, as well as for all subsequent presidential face-offs. The great difference between Lincoln-Douglas and Kennedy-Nixon, however, lay in the medium: Lincoln and Douglas met in the open air; Kennedy and Nixon went on television. For all the carnival-like features of the debates of 1858, those three-hour duels gave the candidates time to establish principles, defend arguments, deploy logic. And even though Lincoln and Douglas were speaking, they proceeded as though they were writers composing a treatise on their subject. Douglas was more tempted to win points with rhetoric, while Lincoln poured his energies into reasoning his way through the slavery issue. But both debaters were full of development, exposition and analysis that could have been printed on the pages of a book without any noticeable reworking. In 1860, the debates were issued in book form and became an election-year bestseller.
By contrast, the four Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 were carefully managed spectacles, constructed by staffers recruited from public relations and advertising firms. Each candidate was limited to an eight-minute opening and a 2 1/2 -minute rejoinder, so that any idea bigger than a paragraph had to be shoved aside. What made the difference on Election Day was not anything either actually said, but the images they had projected into living rooms: Kennedy the Movie Star, Nixon the Shadow.
Judged by the debates of Lincoln and Douglas, those of the 2008 campaign have more in common with a game show, emceed by grimacing journalists playing "Wheel of Gotcha." The right balance of freshness and gravitas, the right focus-group-polished phrase, and the relentless incantation of "change" -- these have become the substance of modern campaign debates, as though an election were a choice of wardrobe. Nor is it likely, in what we now call debates, that a candidate like Abraham Lincoln -- homely, awkward, but determined to run an issue to its roots -- would survive the first click of the remote.
Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College and author of "Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America."