When the first televised debates were held in 1960, the world saw two young candidates, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, respectfully engage in intelligent and elevated discussion.
These inaugural encounters are mostly remembered for Nixon’s flop sweatshirt and awkward makeup.
But in the midst of the Cold War, as the ideological battle raged between Washington and Moscow, the debates were seen as an exciting advertisement for American democracy.
Speaking in the spirit of the patriotic bipartisanism that was such a hallmark of American politics in the 1950s and early 1960s, Kennedy opened the first debate by examining how he would be viewed by international viewers:
“In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln said the question was whether this nation could exist half-slave or half-free. In the elections of 1960, and with the world around us, the question is whether the world will exist half or half free, that it will move in the direction of freedom, in the direction of the path we take, or whether it will move in the direction of slavery. ”
Last night’s vicious encounter, more cage fighting than Camelot, was about a different era and a different country: a split-screen America, a nation of insurmountable fractures, a country in democratic decadence.
Two elderly men, both over 70, traded slurs and barbs, with a sitting president once again destroying standards of conventional behavior in prime time.
If there is a heavenly pantheon of past presidents, an Oval Office in the sky, Abe Lincoln and Jack Kennedy must have looked down like baffled ghosts.
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For many international viewers, and for many Americans as well, the debate offered a real-time rendering of America’s decline.
It reminded us once again how American exceptionalism is increasingly seen as a negative construct: something associated with mass shootings, mass incarceration, racial division and political chaos.
Germany’s Der Spiegel called it “A televised duel like a car accident”
“Never has American policy sunk so low,” lamented the American correspondent of La Repubblica.
Le Monde, the French newspaper which declared “we are all Americans” – “we are all Americans now” – in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, called it a “terrible storm”.
But the storms pass. What the debate showed last night was America’s permanent political weather system.
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At a time when geopolitical soft power has assumed such importance, and where influence is closely tied to international image management, the 21st century has produced searing images of American self-harm.
The Florida election debacle in 2000, when we woke up after election day in polling stations sealed off with yellow police tape, presented a sad democratic spectacle.
At one point, as the recount grew more and more grotesque, Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe even offered to send election observers. When the conservative Supreme Court intervened in favor of George W. Bush, it sounded like an election crash.
Then there were the damaging images of the Bush administration’s war on terror – the watchtowers at Guantanamo, the horrors of Abu Ghraib and the imperial pride of that “Mission accomplished” banner, the backdrop. from the moment conceived for television when George W. Bush prematurely claimed victory in an unfinished war that ended up hemorrhaging so much blood and American treasures.
Future historians will place last night’s TV horror show in that same gallery of images of national embarrassment.
Many international viewers also understand the analytical prism through which the debate must be viewed – that Donald Trump’s base sent him to Washington precisely because of his unconventionality, and that supporters will view criticism of the aggressive style of the president as elite condescension.
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Fans of his destructive energy tune in to watch a political WrestleMania, the Joe Biden slap. This is now widely understood.
But his failure to explicitly condemn white supremacists, and his bizarre advice to far-right group The Proud Boys, “to step back and be ready,” still shows his ability to shock.
After the inaugural televised debates in 1960, there was a 16-year hiatus before seeing them return.
Then the first debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter was marred by a technical failure, which killed the audio for 27 minutes – something that would have provided a welcome break last night.
Today, the format and even the future of these debates have been re-examined, with the Commission on Presidential Debates announcing that “additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more open discussion. ordered ”.
Over the years, presidential debates have become as much about entertainment as they are elucidation. As reporters, we beat them like the Vegas world heavyweight boxing fights before and mark them as TV reviews afterwards.
The strongest moments, inexorably, are the moments of combat and comedy. Prefabricated zincers. Caustic one-liners. The “punches” – we even adopted the vocabulary of ring commentary.
Ever since Ronald Reagan mastered the genre, debates have tended to reward star power rather than expertise.
Presidential debates increasingly boil down to who can deliver Reagan-style one-liners, the jokes or reprimands that are repeated endlessly in the days that follow.
Star power is now valued more than expertise. What is supposed to be a job interview has become more of an audition for the role of a leading man.
Into this charisma trap, a long line of qualified but losing candidates has fallen – Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, Mike Dukakis, Al Gore.
They were all more accomplished administrators than actors.
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Nor is it a coincidence that the only president to serve in the last 40 years, George Herbert Walker Bush, has been terrible on television. Tellingly, the moment his time was deemed to be over was when he glanced impatiently at his wristwatch in the middle of a televised debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.
This 1992 debate, the first to be held in the town hall format, showed how Bill Clinton, a young telegenic governor, had mastered the medium.
Effortlessly answering questions from the audience, he showed off Elvis’ set design and Doctor Phil’s empathy. In the age of Oprah, these very important debate optics helped him win. Like Reagan, he became another performative president who understood the theatrical demands of the role.
Thus, in addition to dramatizing the electoral process, the televised debates undoubtedly ended up defeating it. Last night has bottomed out.
The cliché drawn later also serves as a truism: America was the loser.