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Can Anyone Win A Campaign Debate?

Thursday, Sep. 30, 2010

Long before the day of political polls and pundits, candidates met the public and each other in open debate. These mostly unscripted exchanges often took place outdoors, with a large and sometimes rowdy crowd in attendance.

The 1858 Lincoln and Douglas debate was actually a series of 7 meetings. There were no sound bites: the first man spoke for 60 minutes, the next for 90 minutes, followed by a 30 minute rebuttal.

Today the televised debates are a media production as much as political theater.  Typically, the audience is hand-picked, the moderator sticks to a script, and the candidates don't really spar as much as they just "snap" at each other.

The first political debate I watched was between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. The broadcast was in black and white; the stage was sparse and the lighting too bright. In comparison to what I've seen recently, the unvarnished nature of those early days seems nostalgic and authentic.


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