As the only surviving (at 96) moderator of the first televised presidential debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960, I want to urge the early reconsideration of format for the upcoming Bush-Kerry confrontations.
Since our four debates of that original series, various formats have been tried, but none has permitted the face-to-face confrontation of one candidate asking questions of the other. The candidates don't like that because it creates a spontaneity that has been missing in the campaigns. It also would mean that at times a candidate would not be able to pull out a coined answer from a set campaign speech. A surprise question could reveal a candidate's individuality, personality, and understanding and potential command of many pressing issues.
The Sept. 11 commission demonstrated that an independent and bipartisan report is possible. Let the Commission on Presidential Debates likewise demonstrate an independence from the two major parties and devise a format of true debate by looking back to the historic Lincoln-Douglas debates.
Debates also have a way of lending themselves to memorable moments. Kennedy was asked about colorful language that former president Harry S. Truman had directed toward Nixon and the Republican Party. Kennedy responded in his New England patois, "Well, I must say that, uh, Mr. Truman has, uh, his methods of expressing things. . . . They . . . are not my style. But I really don't think there's anything that I could say to President Truman that's going to cause him, at the age of 76, to change his particular speaking manner. Perhaps Mrs. Truman can. . . ."
"Any comment, Mr. Vice President?" I asked.
"Of course, both, er, Senator Kennedy and I have felt Mr. Truman's ire. . . . I just do want to say one thing, however. We all have tempers; I have one; I'm sure Senator Kennedy has one. But when a man's president of the United States, or a former president, he has an obligation not to lose his temper in public. One thing I've noted as I've traveled around the country are the tremendous number of children who come out to see the presidential candidates. . . . It makes you realize that whoever is president is going to be a man that all the children of America will either look up to, or will look down to. And I can only say that I'm very proud that President Eisenhower restored dignity and decency and, frankly, good language to the conduct of the presidency. . . . I only hope that, should I win this election . . . that whenever any mother or father talks to his child, he can look at the man in the White House and . . . say: 'Well, there is a man who maintains the kind of standards personally that I would want my child to follow.' "
Thirteen years later, the Nixon tapes made "expletive deleted" a catchphrase.