A glimmer of hope in the vast wasteland



On Wednesday night, President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney met in Denver for 28th televised presidential debate. The first was in 1960, when John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon squared off in Chicago. After he was elected, Mr. Kennedy told me he would not have not have won without the four debates that year.

The debates are an institution now, and among the most watched television events in America. They are one place in the modern campaign — perhaps the only place — where the voter is treated with respect. They are the one time when the major candidates appear together side by side under conditions they do not control. They are a relief from the nasty commercials that dominate the campaign, fed by donations that are effectively unlimited and anonymous. Broadcasters provide the television time for the debates, without commercials, as a rare public service.

I have been privileged to participate in some form in all 27 presidential and 8 vice presidential debates so far. In 1960, I helped my boss, the former Illinois governor and presidential candidate Adlai E. Stevenson, persuade Congress to exempt debates from the equal-time law, making it possible for broadcasters to cover them without having to include every candidate for the presidency, no matter how marginal. (Congress failed to provide the same exemption in 1964, 1968 and 1972, so there were no debates those years.) After the Federal Communications Commission acted to exempt the debates from the equal-time law, the League of Women Voters revived the debates, in 1976, and asked me to help.

Critics have sometimes charged that the debates, and their format and substance, are controlled by the two major parties and campaigns. This was once true. In 1980, for example, the negotiations between the League of Women Voters and two skilled Texas political hands — James A. Baker III for the Republicans and Robert S. Strauss for the Democrats — reached an impasse.

That’s when Jim Baker looked at me and said, “Newt, excuse me, I have to go to the men’s room.” Two minutes later, Bob Strauss similarly excused himself. About 10 minutes later, they came back together with handwritten notes on the back of an envelope and told us, “Here’s the way it’s going to be.” At that time, the debates were still a fragile institution. We had no leverage to compel the candidates to participate, so we accepted their compromise.

Eventually, this led to a showdown: In 1987, the parties established the Commission on Presidential Debates, a bipartisan non-profit organization, to organize the debates, and the following year, the League of Women Voters withdrew its sponsorship. (I serve on the commission.)

Once derided as a creature of the parties, the commission has gradually become independent of them. In 2004, President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry tried to force us to accept a 32-page “memorandum of understanding” setting out debate details; we refused, and they backed down. In 2008, Senator John McCain asked for a postponement of the first debate, citing the turmoil in the financial markets. We said we would hold it as scheduled, and he agreed to participate as planned.

This year, each of the 90-minute presidential debates will be moderated by a single individual (on Wednesday night, Jim Lehrer), not a panel. The first and third debates will be divided into six 15-minute segments. Each segment will open with a question, followed by two minutes for each candidate, with the balance of time for informal discussion. (The second presidential debate will be a town-hall-style discussion.)

We hope the new format will provide for focused, extended discussion and be entirely different from the disappointing primary and caucus debates, where we saw moderators preening for the camera, demanding yes-or-no answers, asking candidates to raise their hands to respond to questions, and forcing candidates to shout to be heard. We even observed media handlers urging the audience to boo, applaud and jeer.

Sadly, the marriage of television and politics in our country has been mostly a history of disappointment. In 1952, television stations — which are licensed by the F.C.C. to serve the public interest — began selling commercials to political campaigns. Other democracies have rejected this idea, and instead provide public service time to candidates during campaign periods.

Over the next 60 years, more and more political commercials flooded the airwaves, forcing candidates to raise more and more money. Many of the slurs and slogans in these commercials — which are often truth-free — are now paid for by “super PACs” and secretive 501(c)(4) groups. I believe it is unconscionable that candidates for public office have to buy access to the airwaves — which the public itself owns — to talk to the public.

The debates are one of the few features of our political campaigns that are still admired throughout the world. Candidate debates are still new in most democratic countries, even in Western Europe. Britain, often held up as a model for how to hold a proper election, only in 2010 began to have televised live debates among the party leaders vying to be prime minister.

Let me suggest that after you watch the debate on Wednesday night, you turn off your television set and do your best to avoid the spin that will follow. Talk about what you saw and heard with your family, your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers. You are smarter than the spinners. It’s your decision that matters on November 6, not theirs .

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