The Riskiest of High Risk TV

Presidential Debate book cover

The Riskiest of High Risk TV

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

Much has been written about the debates among the Republican presidential candidates throughout the 2012 election cycle, including numerous reviews and essays in these very pages. Totaling nearly 30 between late spring 2011 and the final GOP contest in Arizona in early 2012, the GOP debates produced high television ratings and wildly unexpected results—including the much-longer-than-anticipated battle Mitt Romney faced as the party’s presumptive nominee, as well as the dramatic rise of Rick Santorum, the phoenix-like rebirth of Newt Gingrich, and the remarkable persistence of Ron Paul. Largely rebranded and redesigned by the TV networks, the debates became—eventually—something akin to gladiatorial combat, a glitzy mix of Fear Factor and Survivor, part professional wrestling and part Ultimate Fighting, and a stand-up fusion of Dr. Phil and Rollerball.

So infused with pandering and over-the-top combativeness were these debates that for months in 2011 and 2012, the writers at Saturday Night Live found their jobs among the easiest on earth, for it was often enough to simply restage debates nearly verbatim to get audience belly-laughs. Surely, somewhere, the spirits of Marshall McLuhan and Paddy Chayefsky were twisting in their graves.

Much has evolved in the relatively short span since John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon famously faced off in 1960 on live television. For one, reporters and editors took notice: in the days and hours before the Nixon/Kennedy debates, press attention had ranged from scant to non-existent. Some major newspapers didn’t even mention the match-up, and—more amazingly—the television networks did almost nothing to promote the debates in advance. Despite this, many millions tuned in to watch what would become one of the most decisive single events ever to have affected the outcome of an election. Kennedy, still a relative unknown to many Americans, was effective in the televised debates—handsome, poised, sure-footed. Despite his obvious knowledge of the subject matter Nixon was, by contrast, visibly uncomfortable—sweating, pale, distracted. The nearly instant change in momentum and public attitude about the two candidates caught many in the press off guard.

Reporters and editors—and especially TV producers—would not make the same mistake again. Despite a hiatus that lasted until 1976, by the early 1980s, presidential debates had become vastly important, even decisive in some cases—as in Ronald Reagan’s debate performance against President Jimmy Carter in late October of 1980, and George Herbert Walker’s debates with Michael Dukakis in 1988. And since then, through the 1990s and into the early 21st Century, debates have been elevated to a sacred status through the ever-deepening, ever-tightening knot of co-dependency between the media and political parties and their candidates. It’s hard to imagine a presidential election without these televised forms of comparison.

In his book Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High Risk TV, writer and journalism professor Alan Schroeder takes a comprehensive look at the presidential debates in the age of television. Starting with a close look at the famous Kennedy-Nixon exchange in 1960—including direct quotes and recollections with many of those who were present in the TV studio that October (Don Hewitt, Ted Rogers, and others)—Schroeder takes the reader through the great American love of televised political match-ups, then, as now, seen occasionally by political parties and some candidates as distractions, but seen by others as opportunities.

In their first-ever direct match-up last October, President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney jousted over domestic issues for an hour and a half, with the outcome being that Romney “won” the debate in the eyes of many journalists and analysts, as well as most who watched on TV. Romney was consistent, forceful, dynamic; Obama was hesitant, defensive and—at times—unable or unwilling to respond. Within hours, national polling numbers began to show a shift toward Romney, a result similar to Reagan’s perceived victory in his last debate with Carter in late October 1980. Republicans strategists were elated, while Democratic planners went into a quiet panic. But, perhaps inevitably, Romney’s surge did not last. A quick learner, Obama bounced back, and in their second debate—the so-called Town Hall format—the President and his challenger seemed comically overheated, sparring aggressively and engaging in alpha male bravado, Romney seeking to maintain his advantage, Obama seeking to dislodge the former governor. Then, in their final debate, a sit-down “roundtable” discussion with Bob Scheiffer of CBS, it was Romney who seemed subdued, shifting noticeably from unilateralist foreign policy hawk to internationalist moderate, while Obama morphed from his conciliatory role into the very definition of proactive world peacekeeper. Why the strange mix of styles and testosterone levels?

Debates are often 90 minutes of conservative football punctuated by brief moments of excitement—at least what can be defined as excitement to the TV camera and to news editors. Schroeder examines this process as it is managed by the candidates’ handlers, consultants and the party leaders, illuminating examples of how candidates often attempt to reshape their images prior to debate performances.

Schroeder also takes us step-by-step through all the debates since 1976, from the confrontations between President Gerald Ford and challenger Jimmy Carter, through the Reagan versus Walter Mondale debates in 1984, and through the game-changing debates which brought Bill Clinton to national prominence in 1992. We get a first-hand look at those indelible moments: Michael Dukakis delivering a cold, detached answer when asked an emotional question about capital punishment by CNN’s Bernard Shaw; George Herbert Walker Bush glancing impatiently at his wristwatch in a three-way exchange between Bush, Clinton and Reform candidate Ross Perot; Al Gore’s sometimes wooden, stilted and even artificial performances in his debate appearances; Reagan’s halting, occasionally vacant moments during his first match-up with Walter Mondale.

Schroeder divides his book up into three basic components of TV broadcasting and development: preproduction; production; and post-production. He looks at the complex equations of logistical planning and strategic advantage which precede any debate, and the sometimes strange process known as “debating the debates.” Schroeder examines the bipartisan group now designated with managing debates—the not-for-profit Commission on Presidential Debates—which has, since 1987, been responsible for planning and brokering debates between the major candidates. Schroeder looks closely at what happens when these debates go out live: though seen by many as heavily scripted, with candidates often spouting back carefully rehearsed answers to moderator questions, there can be surprises and moments of clarity. Just as Nixon was unable to hide his discomfort on live TV, no amount of choreography and pre-debate coaching could conceal from viewers George H.W. Bush’s disdain of Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, nor could it mask Dan Quayle’s raw anger after Lloyd Bentsen’s famous put-down in 1988. Schroeder also illustrates the role of hosts, moderators and panelists—a necessary component in the age in which the media stars are often as well-known as the politicians themselves. Finally Schroeder takes us into the art of “spin,” that well-worn and sometimes interminably annoying process by which party hacks, political loyalists and media analysts weigh-in with their often partisan agendas to control the talking points and momentum starting in the minutes after a debate has concluded.

Schroeder ends with a small section devoted to potential improvements to the debates.

This book is approachable and well-written, and comprehensive—and, not a bad way to learn about a process now lodged, perhaps permanently, at the intersection of American democracy and entertainment.