Back in September of 1960, an editorial in The Wall Street Journal had this to say of the very first televised presidential debate: "As a performance, judged as one would judge debaters for poise and sharp argument, we would personally award the edge to Mr. Kennedy. He was relaxed, articulate and quick to pick up a point. Mr. Nixon seemed nervous . . ."
This was heresy and not just because the Journal was inclined to favor Nixon. It was heresy because no one was supposed to declare a winner even in these hedged, cautious terms. In that first debate, despite the verdict favoring Kennedy that was gradually handed down and finally universally accepted, commentators were almost unanimous in declaring that there was no winner, that both men had done pretty well; and they followed this with the usual editorial emetic about how the people were the true winners . . . and so forth and so on.
I mention this for two reasons. One is that the custom started then has lasted for almost a quarter of a century. People have remained disposed through subsequent debates, no matter how well one contender has done or how poorly, to resist proclaiming a winner. The taboo lives. I am about to break it (and I think a lot of others may be ready to do so as well). I think Mondale "won" the debate with the president and that he won in almost exactly the way The Wall Street Journal thought Kennedy won in 1960. Look at that quote again: it is startlingly apt.
The "nobody won" taboo is, of course, only one of the peculiar features of these political rites we have developed over the years and which we somewhat misleadingly call "debates." The most peculiar feature is our notion of what constitutes a victory, which in turn defines what we are looking for in the contenders. For although we like to say "nobody won," we all quickly decide which one actually did. And this has relatively little to do with which man's facts are more nearly relevant or true.
It is interesting that, without exception, all those candidates who are generally thought to have lost their debates -- Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford in 1976 and Jimmy Carter in 1980 -- have believed themselves to have won "on the facts" and lost on some intangibles of presence and performance. And they may even all have been right in this judgment. The point is that presence and performance are what the debates are about, and although both Reagan and Mondale avoided some of the worst hazards of their positions, Mondale seemed to me to have overcome his obstacles more decisively.
What are those hazards and obstacles? Where presidential debates are concerned, we have become a nation, may God forgive us, of Howard Cosells: we do not want our debaters to be too aggressive (but they must aggress), and we do not want them to be too defensive (but they must defend). Bob Dole was too aggressive in 1976 and hurt himself badly, just as Nixon in 1960 had been too defensive. Reagan did not fall completely into the defender's trap on Sunday evening, but he did seem unusually charmless (for him) and even more unusually defensive. He laid off too much (is this a new trend for the president?) on others: economists who had given him bum steers, his predecessors in office, almost anyone who was handy. He seemed uncharacteristically thin-skinned. This too is a built-in danger of the role he had to play, and for once he did not come out of it in perfect shape.
Mondale's most impressive accomplishment was to be aggressive and still respectful of the incumbent. He did not even seem especially hypocritical when he magnanimously credited the president's faith, sincerity and seriousness concerning everything from God to bollixed-up budget figures. This was an Oscar-worthy performance in my view. He did not seem even slightly nervous, but he did not seem arrogant in his confidence either. One of Mondale's associates, who sometimes talk about these things as if they were discussing open-heart surgery, observed on an earlier Sunday TV program that "the critical period is 72 to 96 hours after the debate." At which point, the polls having been taken, presumably, we will know whether the patient is going to live or die. I don't confuse Mondale's living on with his winning this election, but I do think he at least got back into the election with this performance.
And the two of them, let it be said, did manage jointly to do a little something for the quality of presidential debates, never mind that what they did deprived us blood-thirsty fans of a little fun. First, there was no great aaargh in this debate, no moment when one of the candidates said something so positively embarrassing that the nation cringed and jeered. Nixon gave us our first back in 1960 when, complaining about how Harry Truman had said the Republicans should "go to hell," he piously told us how proud he was of President Eisenhower for restoring "good language to the conduct of the presidency." Jimmy Carter gave us another in the anecdote about Amy.
The other missing element this time was the terrible stiffness, the overwhelming sense of artifice and phoniness that the exchanges often convey, along with the palpable anxiety bordering on tightly contained panic of the contenders. The monument to this was the stony immobility of Carter and President Ford for a full 28 minutes in their first debate when the power failed. Not only did they just stand there, but when the power went back on, Carter didn't even acknowledge that anything had happened: he resumed (truly, just look at the text) in midsentence.
I don't want to suggest that the two candidates had not practiced within an inch of their lives. Reagan was ready with that "there-you- go-again" line, and Mondale was there just waiting for it. What struck me about this moment and many of the others was that Mondale held his own and was able to meet the president on Reagan's ground. Theodore White pointed out in 1960 that Jack Kennedy won over Nixon because he addressed the American public, while Nixon addressed Kennedy. Reagan did the same in 1980, even as Carter, la Nixon, was trying to clobber him on points. Mondale clearly had the idea. He fought back. I think he gained enormously in stature and plausibility on Sunday night, always granting that (1) he had nowhere to go but up and (2) he may not have gotten all that high.