Michael Beschloss: Gerald Ford's Gift to Democracy ... Presidential Debates

Roundup: Historians' Take

Michael Beschloss, in the NYT (Oct. 17, 2004):

Smoking a pipe in his Kansas City hotel room just before the 1976 Republican convention, behind by 30 points in some polls, President Gerald Ford told advisers that he had to "do something dramatically different" to win re-election. What he did enhanced American democracy, but it has been a specter for incumbent presidents ever since - and it may yet come to haunt President Bush.

Accepting his party's nomination in the Kemper Arena on Aug. 19, Mr. Ford declared, "I am eager to go before the American people and debate the real issues face to face with Jimmy Carter." Mr. Ford's gamble began a modern tradition of televised presidential debates. This tradition has had one important and, for Mr. Ford at least, unintended effect: presidents don't win re-election as often as they used to.

During the 80 years before Mr. Ford's challenge to Jimmy Carter, only two presidents lost: William Howard Taft, who suffered from a once-in-a-lifetime party split, and Herbert Hoover, who presided over the worst economic depression in American history. In contrast, during the 28 years since Mr. Ford threw down the gauntlet, three incumbent presidents - Mr. Ford himself, Mr. Carter and George H. W. Bush - have lost re-election. And if the latest polls on the current race have any meaning, a fourth defeated president is a distinct possibility.

No sane person would argue that a challenger can beat a sitting president simply by going on television with him as an apparent equal and criticizing him to his face. But, as John Kerry - who used his three debates to close the gap with President Bush in most major polls - would surely attest, it can provide a glittering opportunity.

The power of televised debates as an anti-incumbent weapon revealed itself as early as 1960, with the encounters between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, which occurred in one of the meanest years of the cold war. Before those debates, many Americans considered the seemingly callow, absentee junior senator from Massachusetts no match for the worldly vice president, who had acted in Eisenhower's stead during the president's three major illnesses and who had stood up to the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, in their much-ballyhooed Moscow "kitchen debate."

But Kennedy's televised performance against Nixon gave him presidential stature. As Nixon later said, "The incumbent or whoever represents an incumbent administration will generally be at a disadvantage in debate because his opponent can attack while he must defend." After Kennedy won the election, he said, motioning toward a TV set, "We wouldn't have had a prayer without that gadget."

After 1960 and until Mr. Ford's fateful decision in 1976, incumbent presidents used any excuse - even ridiculous ones - to avoid such unpredictable events. Lyndon Johnson, for example, insisted that appearing with his Republican rival, Barry Goldwater, would be unfair to third-party candidates like Earle Harold Munn of the Prohibition Party. They were abiding by the logic of Dwight Eisenhower's press secretary, Jim Hagerty, who said after the 1960 debates, "You can bet your bottom dollar that no incumbent president will ever engage in any such debate or joint appearance in the future."

After 1976, however, it was harder for an incumbent to deny his challenger a forum. And President Jimmy Carter, who had benefited from the new tradition that year, was its second casualty.....

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