Thomas V. DiBacco: Presidential Debates ... Shake Hands and Come Out Acting

Roundup: Historians' Take

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian and professor emeritus at American University in Washington.

Wednesday marks the 52nd anniversary of the first televised presidential candidate debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. It's a dubious distinction. Although there's every indication that debates matter in voter selection of a candidate, such rhetorical confrontations are poor indicators of future leadership.

By any reasonable standard, debates are won on form and rarely on substance. In the pre-microphone age of American politics, he who had the booming voice had the decided edge, as evidenced in the 1858 U.S. Senate race debates in Illinois between Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln had a "shrill, piping, squeaking and unpleasant" voice, according to his law partner. Douglas, after 15 years in Congress, was the more skilled public speaker, energetically roaming the platform with gestures and colorful language sure to capture the attention of local audiences. After seven debates, Douglas won the Senate seat. And had debates been continued on a presidential level two years later, Douglas may well have emerged as the 16th president...

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