Last night’s Republican presidential debate got a touch boring. It wasn’t necessarily the Dodd-Frank disquisitions or the back and forth on tax and immigration policies. It was the way the audience exited stage left, per the request of NBC, which asked that the crowd withhold its thoughts on the repartee.
Newt Gingrich, a guy whose recent political fortunes stem in part from firing up debate audiences, expressed his disgust for the muzzling this morning on Fox News:
“Yeah, I wish in retrospect I’d protested with Brian Williams and took him out of it, because I think it’s wrong. And I think he took them out of it because the media’s terrified that the audience is going to side with the candidates against the media, which is what they’ve done in every debate and we’re going to serve notice on future debates. We’re just not going to allow that to happen. That’s wrong, the media doesn’t control free speech, people ought to be allowed to applaud if they want to. It was almost silly.”
Almost silly — and historically bankrupt! Newt right there missed a monster of an opportunity to lecture himself some history. Consider the role of the crowd in the first Lincoln-Douglas debate. Totally out of control, according to the book “The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text.” We’re talkng Aug. 21, 1858, in the village of Ottawa, Ill.
[A] full hour before the speeches were scheduled to begin, the throng began surging into the modest public square, quickly transforming it into “one mass of active life.” Most spectators rushed forward to secure good standing room — no chairs had been provided, and onlookers complained bitterly about the “wretched accommodations” — while others brazenly overran the unguarded speakers’ platform. As the audience howled with laughter, a few daredevils clambered onto its wooden awning, leaping about recklessly until they came crashing down through the roof and onto the laps of the few startled dignitaries who had finally fought their way to their seats.
Given that prelude, you think that audience would have accepted a shhhh request from some slick moderator? Uh, according to the historical record, no.
Stephen Douglas kicked things off, addressing the “leading political topics that now agitate the public mind.” He was talking not of tax returns or open marriages but of slavery. He gave a full-throated endorsement of the Compromise of 1850, which brought forth cheers: “Here a number of persons began to applaud, when one strong-voiced applauder, with more enthusiasm than the rest, prolonged the strain until it ended in a melancholy howl, which produced great laughter.” (That comes from an account in the Chicago Daily Press and Tribune.)
At that point, Douglas morphed into a pre-Civil War Brian Williams: “My friends, silence is more acceptable to me in the discussion of this question than applause. I desire to address myself to your judgment — to your understanding — to your consciences — and not to your passions.”
Not exactly a Gingrichian formulation there.
Douglas’ appeal appeared to work for a few minutes. But then the transcript starts to show evidence of massive audience participation, via ”cheers” at one point, “laughter” at another, “hurrah for Douglas” at another, “hark” at yet another. The lesson for Douglas, Brian Williams, and NBC: Don’t try to keep the people down.
The record thus proves that Gingrich’s push for the revival of audience participation in the 2012 Republican presidential debates isn’t a self-serving ploy; it’s not a gesture to gain advantage over his less theatrical opponents; it’s not an attempt to allow cheers to deflect from the issues at hand. It’s merely a great historian’s insistence on restoring American polemical heritage.