Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lincoln-Douglas Redux

Andy's posting about convention burn-out inspired this one: For our first homework assignment in Critical Thinking, we were asked to watch the conventions and then post our comments on the speeches, basically analyzing them the best we could based on our readings in the first chapter of our text.

My point about the conventions is that in this setting you aren't likely to hear any clearly-defined substantive propositions. Political conventions have evolved into carefully staged media events. Their mission is to place the candidates in the best possible light to sell them to the voting public. Any propositions have to be tailored to appeal as much as possible to the common denominator without alienating the party's supporting base. For most people, general topics instead of details will suffice.

The question is, when you take off your partisan hat in order to be a well-informed and discerning voter, how do you get past the platitudes that the candidates feel forced to say for public consumption, the scurrilous attacks their campaigns make on each other, and the hype that their campaigns have surrounded them with, to get at the real core of what the candidates believe and what they are likely to do once in office?

Let's face it, the so-called tv debates that have been around since the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 are a joke. The only thing you can learn from these things are how well the candidates' staffs have prepared them to answer any off-the-wall question thrown at them by network journalists and anchors. To be sure, Nixon's swarthy appearance, Al Gore's sighs, and Lloyd Bentsen's great barb about Dan Quayle being no Jack Kennedy were fine fodder for next morning's water-cooler gabfests, but were totally immaterial to the issues at hand.

I saw Newt Gingrich commenting on this very same issue on one of the political talk shows recently, lamenting the shallowness of the debating process these days. Pushing Newt's political views aside for the moment, Newt as a former history professor and historical author has a good perspective on all this: for comparison, he brought up the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, when Lincoln was challenging Douglas for one of the US Senate seats from Illinois.

According to the "Lincoln-Douglas Debates," edited by Robert W. Johannsen, "Lincoln traveled over four thousand miles through the state, delivering sixty-three major speeches. Douglas exceeded Lincoln's mileage by some nine hundred miles and delivered fifty-nine speeches, each one lasting two to three hours, and seventeen shorter speeches." Although sound systems and tape recorders hadn't been invented yet, fortunately we have the verbatim record of all of their seven joint debates, outdoors between August and October - at Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy, and Alton, Illinois - because the Chicago newspapers sent reporters to the events to take down the candidates' words in shorthand.

The format for the debates followed this schedule: one of them would open with a 1-hour speech; the other would rebut with one of his own for 1-1/2 hours (which of course couldn't be written out because he had to respond to everything his opponent had just said), and then the opening speaker would do a rejoinder for another half-hour. To thumb through these pages and see the breadth and depth of the knowledge about the issues of the day these two men had, and how they could speak at such length on these issues, is absolutely astounding.

This fall, I'd like to see Sens. McCain and Obama recreate this format, each with just hand-written notes, no talking points, and no teleprompters. How much of a chance do you think this has of happening.