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Presidential Debates

Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV

Alan Schroeder
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    Presidential Debates
    Book Description:

    Drawing on his own experience as an award-winning reporter and TV producer and through illuminating interviews with journalists and producers who have worked on presidential debates, Alan Schroeder sheds new light on every debate from 1960 to the present. From the selection of questioners to the camera angles, from issues of makeup to lighting and stage set, Schroeder shows how decisions are made that influence every aspect of what the audience perceives. Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV takes readers on a fascinating backstage tour, approaching the debates within the framework of the fundamental steps to which TV producers adhere: preproduction, production, and postproduction. Calling upon behind-the-scenes stories from seven campaign seasons, Schroeder illustrates how the live component of the debates, far from diminishing dramatic potential, increases our anticipation -- not least because of viewer curiosity to watch one candidate make a grave error and go down in flames.

    Presidential Debates illuminates such details as:

    • the elaborate attempts to offset height discrepancies between candidates, such as the "belt buckle compromise" between Carter and Ford mandating the height of the candidates' respective podiums;

    • the full story behind debate moderator Bernard Shaw's infamous question to Michael Dukakis about his wife being hypothetically raped and murdered; and

    • the calculation and faux-spontaneity of Reagan's influential quip, "There you go again," which effectively dismissed Carter's pointed accusations about health care.

    With innumerable behind-the-scenes stories about the candidates, their advisers, the on-air correspondents, the producers, and other backstage lore, Schroeder illustrates how, like all forms of television, debates combine artifice with truth. An unusual blend of civics and show biz, the presidential debates are revealed here as both carefully scripted rituals and opportunities for the totally unexpected.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50269-6
    Subjects: Political Science, Sociology, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. 1-10)

    26 September 1960. At exactly 7:30 P.M., a shiny Oldsmobile carrying Vice President Richard M. Nixon pulled into an interior drive at the CBS broadcast facility in downtown Chicago. As with other details surrounding the first presidential debate in history, the timing of Nixon’s arrival at this skating rink–turned-TV station had been meticulously plotted. Like dueling divas, Nixon and his opponent, John F. Kennedy, would reach the studio a comfortable quarter hour apart.

    For Richard Nixon, the evening began almost as unpromisingly as it would end. Stepping out of the backseat of the car, he banged his knee sharply...


      (pp. 13-37)

      A few weeks after losing the 1960 election, Richard Nixon went for a sail off the coast of Florida with a group of associates that included a trusted adviser named Leonard Hall. As David Halberstam recounted in a 1976 essay on the Kennedy-Nixon debates,

      There were just a few old friends around and they all went out on a boat. Finally, Hall asked the question he had always wanted to ask—Why did you decide to debate? For a long time Nixon simply looked up at the sky, his eyes closed, his face drawn and tense. And Hall waited, but...

      (pp. 38-64)

      In the seconds leading up to the 1980 presidential debate, President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan strode onto the stage from opposite sides of the Cleveland Music Hall to assume their positions at the lecterns. Instead of stopping at his podium, Reagan bounded across the set, directly to Carter, whose hand he unexpectedly shook. “Carter’s look of surprise suggested that he thought he was about to be knifed,” wrote communication scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson.¹

      As with all political kabuki, such moments are part of a candidate’s master strategy—in this case, to knock the president of the United States...

      (pp. 65-92)

      On the morning of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, the Washington Post devoted not a single news story to the broadcast that would become a seminal event in American politics. The main debate article in the same day’s New York Times ran four short paragraphs on page 22, while the predebate edition of Time magazine failed to note the candidates’ meeting altogether. Even the host medium of television paid scant attention; with only hours to go before the opening statements, the three network newscasts mentioned the debate only briefly, and not as a lead.

      By contemporary standards of coverage,...


    • Chapter Four THE DEBATERS
      (pp. 95-123)

      Walter Mondale called it “the longest walk I’ve ever taken”: the approach to the podium in the fateful moments before a presidential debate.¹ For the layperson, it is difficult to imagine the stress that accompanies candidates as they venture onto this battlefield. A host of factors converge to intimidate: enormous stakes, vast audiences, historical implications—all under the magnifying glass of live television. For debaters, the risks could scarcely be higher.

      As unscripted performances, presidential debates transcend the months of negotiation, preparation, and speculation leading up to the featured event. Once a debate begins, all previous maneuvering yields to a...

    • Chapter Five THE QUESTIONERS
      (pp. 124-147)

      To complement the stars, presidential debates feature cast members who function in key supporting roles: the moderators, panelists, and citizen-questioners who have been an on-camera presence in every general election debate since 1960. In some cases, these scene stealers may have affected outcomes. We can only wonder how 1988’s debate series would have differed without anchorman Bernard Shaw’s hypothetical question about the rape and murder of Kitty Dukakis. Or how Dan Quayle might have fared absent the sharp questioning of journalist-panelists who pressed him on his credentials. Or how George Bush would have come across had he better connected with...

    • Chapter Six THE PRODUCTIONS
      (pp. 148-170)

      With less than ten minutes remaining in the nation’s first presidential debate in sixteen years, Jimmy Carter was wrapping up his final answer of the evening, talking about a breakdown in the trust between government and the people. Mid-sentence, in tens of millions of homes across America, a static buzz suddenly knocked Carter’s voice off the air. Unaware of the problem, the candidate continued to speak. Seconds later, anchormen on all three networks materialized on-screen to announce the unthinkable: Audio from the program had been lost. On ABC, the network charged with pool-producing the debate, Harry Reasoner reassured viewers, “It...


      (pp. 173-199)

      When the first Kennedy-Nixon debate signed off the air at 10:30 P.M. Eastern Daylight time on September 26, 1960, the broadcast networks did not follow the event with news analysis. Instead, they resumed their regular programming: the Original Amateur Hour on ABC; Jackpot Bowling with Milton Berle on NBC; and, on CBS, a prerecorded interview between Walter Cronkite and Lyndon Johnson that ran as part of the Presidential Countdown series. For the duration of the 1960 debates, television scrupulously refrained from instant commentary and postevent news specials. Remarkable as it may seem to contemporary audiences, the millions of Americans who...

    • Chapter Eight THE AUDIENCE
      (pp. 200-214)

      The one undisputed fact about presidential debates is their popularity. From the outset the public has shown a willingness, even an eagerness, to sit up and pay attention to these programs. The 70 million Americans who watched the first Kennedy-Nixon broadcast inaugurated a tradition of high viewership that continues today.¹ In the face of declining voter turnout at the polls, audiences for debates between presidential candidates have remained enormous.

      The single meeting between President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan in 1980 drew more than 100 million people, making this the most-watched presidential debate—and one of the most-watched television...

    (pp. 215-222)

    In a study of the 1960 and 1976 debates, political communication researchers Marilyn Jackson-Beeck and Robert G. Meadow identified the “triple agenda” of presidential debates: the conflicting constituencies of campaigns, journalists, and the public that these programs are called on to serve. “It is possible for all three parties to the debates to be concerned with entirely different issues,” the professors wrote, “while engaging in what would seem to be trialogue.” Jackson-Beeck and Meadow concluded that in this three-way division of interests, it was candidates who derived the greatest benefit.¹

    Today, after a nearly forty-year tradition of presidential debates, candidates...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 223-252)
  10. References
    (pp. 253-258)
  11. Schedule of Televised Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates: 1960–1996
    (pp. 259-262)
  12. Index
    (pp. 263-276)