Looking at lessons from debates past to provide clues for future debates

As I write this post, the presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney has not yet occurred. There has been much anticipation for tonight’s debate in Denver. Some of my friends have even planned debate-watching parties (definitely does not sound like my idea of a good time). The election is next month, and there is an expectation for the events of the debate to influence voters’ opinions, and maybe even determine the outcome of the election.

I’ve watched several presidential debates in my life, and I fully expect tonight’s event to be more of the same. The combination of my journalism training, political disillusionment, and the cynicism associated with both, leads me to conclude that what the candidates say during the debate tonight is not as significant as how the news coverage will characterize the proceedings.

I’m sure we’ve all heard about the famous presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. The legacy of that debate is intimately tied to the history of communication media: as the story goes, people who listened to the debate on the radio tended to think that Nixon had bested his opponent, while people who watched the television broadcast tended to consider Kennedy the superior debater.

Other anecdotes add to this story, including the legend that Nixon (who was a television novice) was unaware of the need for makeup when appearing on television, and so he declined to wear any during the debate. Sometimes accounts are embellished with the detail that Nixon has also not shaved, and appeared with an unbecoming 5-o’clock shadow. Kennedy, on the other hand, looked sharp and fresh-faced.

The story of this fabled debate has remained at the forefront of American political consciousness. On the surface it may seem like a curiosity, or even a cautionary tale about how appearances matter. There are many other lessons implicit in this story. One is the notion (often unspoken, but always implied) that while Kennedy may have been the better-looking candidate, Nixon was the more substantive. This is insinuated by the fact that radio listeners (who were relying only on the candidate’s words, and were not swayed by appearances) thought that Nixon had the better arguments. Another message implicit in this story is the advent of television to supercede radio, and the important fact that different mediums convey messages in very different ways. In effect, the incident illustrates Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum: “The medium is the message.” The final lesson follows from the previous two: the story of the Kennedy-Nixon debate signals the triumph of the image in American politics; the point at which appearance became more important than substance.

Enjoy the show!

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