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Peggy Lampl, 78

Peggy Lampl Dies at 78; Former League of Women Voters Official Helped Set Debate Format

Peggy Lampl of the League of Women Voters persuaded the FCC to allow a two-party debate.
Peggy Lampl of the League of Women Voters persuaded the FCC to allow a two-party debate. (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 10, 2009

Peggy Lampl, 78, a former executive director of the League of Women Voters whose appeal to the Federal Communications Commission in 1976 set the presidential debate format that exists today, died July 24 at Sibley Memorial Hospital. She had appendix cancer.

The first televised presidential debate occurred in 1960 between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy as an experimental broadcast from a studio in New York without a live audience. As executive director of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters 16 years later, Ms. Lampl was a member of a small committee charged with organizing another debate.

She persuaded the FCC to allow the league to sponsor the event with a two-party format in order to bypass the "equal-time law," which would have required several minor party candidates to participate. The league considered multiple participants to be unwieldy.

As a result of Ms. Lampl's negotiations, four forums were held in 1976. They included three debates between President Gerald Ford (R) and his Democratic opponent, Jimmy Carter, and one between the vice presidential candidates, Minnesota Sen. Walter F. Mondale, the Democratic candidate, and Kansas Sen. Robert J. Dole, his Republican counterpart.

The same format has been followed, with minor variations, in every presidential election since.

For her work in creating the debate format, Ms. Lampl won a Peabody Award in 1976 and an Emmy in 1977.

"Peggy was very determined and very civic-minded," said Newton Minow, a former FCC chairman who is now vice president of the Commission on Presidential Debates. "The word I would use to describe her is 'very effective.' She was indispensable."

According to Sidney Kraus's "Great Debates 1976: Carter Versus Ford," the vice presidential debates were Ms. Lampl's idea.

"We ought to have a vice presidential debate, given the recent history," she said, noting that three vice presidents since World War II later became presidents.

Ms. Lampl said the debates might be a difficult sell to the participants, because it could be difficult for the candidate to recover from a humiliating defeat broadcast across the nation.

"We didn't think the candidates would accept," Ms. Lampl told the New York Times after the first debate. "The reception we got was, 'It's an interesting idea, but . . . ' "

Ultimately, neither candidate in 1976 had much to lose.

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