It seemed such a good idea once Tv had become the hearthstone of the American home. Why not encourage the presidential finalists to engage in direct encounters so that citizens could watch, make judgements and be encouraged to exercise voter choice? Better than the slickly contrived TV commercials that make the candidates behind the manipulative skills of their image experts. Better than the frenetic jet-assisted tours of the grass roots when hasty handshakes and even hastier arguments are made to substitute for reasoned efforts at persuasion.
This at least was the line of logic that caused Henry Geller and me, in 1975, to petition the Federal Communications Commission to relax its "equal time" interpretation and allow broadcasters to cover live presidential debates sponsored by citizen groups like the League of Women Voters. Maybe the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon confrontations, when Congress had temporarily suspended equal time, lacked something in genuineness. Lincoln-Douglas they were not. The clashes over Quemoy and Matsu and Cuba proved irresponsible. Reporter-interrogators, of whom I was one, added unnecessary clutter to the format. Still, many citizens watched and went to the polls by a greater percentage than any time since. The so-called Great Debates was superior to most of the campaign argument in the age of the electronic pulpit.
And thus, after 16 years and much hassling, the Ford-Carter encounters took place in 1976. Again the format was faulty and the arguments less trenchant. The critics bitched and the networks belittled the League of Women Voters for getting in on their act. I kept asking everyone: what are your alternatives? At least Carter and Ford said afterward they thought the debates had been helpful.
But as we review the prologned ordeal of this year's "debates," I am just about ready to join the abolitionists. So much cynical maneuvering for advantage by the candidates leading to a single encounter between the two big ones only a week before we go to the polls. If our historians should conclude, as widely prophesied at this writing, that the election's fate was decided in a sudden-death Super Bowl, we will all be the losers.
Why can't we manage to employ our modern magic of electronic communication to enhance rather than confound the democratic process? Are we so lacking in social inventiveness? Everyone now has a pet scapegoat. Congress and the FCC are blamed for putting the broadcasters in a straitjacket. The broadcasters, in turn, appear woefully short of imagination and prime time when political programming gets in the way of higher-rated entertainment. Candidate handlers treat the subject like a game of pinball, testing how far it can be manipulated before the "tilt" light flashes.
Should we make another try in 1984, the year made memorable in advance by George Orwell's bleak version? Again, what are the alternatives? aHow do ordinary people manage to get a revealing glimpse of those who wish to be our leader? Maybe we have grown acculturated to synthetic political pap in the same way we fancy the processed fast foods as substitute for a more nutritious diet. Social scientists tell us that the typical 60-second political commercial contains more information bits than the longer candidate spiels. Maybe that's what we want: information bits honed and polished so they penetrate our consciousness without straining our thought processes.
Or maybe we should give presidential debates a real try. If we do, certain ground rules must be set and stuck to. I would propose at least five or six encounters over the final two cammpaign months even at the risk of boring the viewers. Scrub the interrogators or, at most, let them suggest the broad topics and allow the debators to figure out how they want to square off. Provide time for the opponents to put up or shut up when they challenge each other's facts and memories. Cut out the instant verdicts with which the media hype the debates into another sporting event. This is serious business, trying to decide who is going to lead us.
And what about accommodating the likes of John Anderson? I believe that a candidate who calls himself a "third force" and doesn't bother to build supporting party structure ought to pass a high threshold before being invited to participate. The League, in my opinion, set the threshold for Anderson too low. But an independent umpire like the League must make this on-balance judgment, certainly not one of the candidates, even if he happens to be the incumbent president.
Above all, let us put presidential debates in proper perspective. They are not the greatest TV event since roller derbies. In fact, unless the candidates tone down their anxieties about them, the debates can be downright destructive. If only we can be mature enough to treat them as customary features of what Henry Adams called "the Dance of Democracy," then maybe television can help restore president-making to a human dimension.