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Presidential Debates

Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV

Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 2
Pages: 384
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  • Book Info
    Presidential Debates
    Book Description:

    Alan Schroeder's popular history now covers the 2000 Bush-Gore and 2004 Bush-Kerry debates, including innovations in format and press coverage, and adds new research on televised debates since 1960. Schroeder organizes his book according to a television production timeline, highlighting the importance of pre- and postdebate periods, as well as the live telecasts themselves. He describes production in painstaking detail, from the selection of questioners to camera angles, from makeup to lighting and set design.

    Televised debates represent a rare departure from well-choreographed campaigns, and new media such as YouTube continue to reshape form and content. Conducting interviews with journalists and industry insiders, and drawing on his own experience as an award-winning reporter and television producer, Schroeder delivers a fascinating backstage tour of every aspect of debate performance.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51178-0
    Subjects: Political Science, Sociology, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION: The First Presidential Debate
    (pp. 1-12)

    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...

  5. Part I: Preproduction

      (pp. 15-47)

      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. 48-79)

      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 and, unexpectedly, shook his hand. “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. 80-97)

      “If it takes a village to raise a child,” wrote Joseph Lieberman in his campaign memoir, “it apparently takes an army to prepare a vice presidential debater, or so I learned in 2000.”¹ Like many a debate participant before him, Lieberman discovered that campaigns do not take lightly the task of readying a candidate to meet his opponent on live TV. In the innately unpredictable realm of presidential debates, candidate prep is one of the few aspects of the process over which political professionals can exert control—and rarely do they pass up the opportunity.

      Since 1960 all but a...

      (pp. 98-132)

      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,...

  6. Part II: Production

      (pp. 135-176)

      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 converges 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...

      (pp. 177-208)

      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 H. W. Bush would have come across had he better connected with...

      (pp. 209-240)

      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 disruption, 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...

  7. Part III: Postproduction

      (pp. 243-281)

      When the first Kennedy-Nixon debate signed off the air at 10:30 p.m. eastern daylight time on 26 September 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 post-event news specials. Remarkable as it may seem to contemporary audiences, the millions of Americans who...

      (pp. 282-298)

      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 Just over half the population bothers to vote in national elections, yet audiences for debates between presidential candidates remain enormous.

      The single meeting between President Jimmy Carter and challenger Ronald Reagan in 1980 drew between 80 and 100 million people, making it the most-watched presidential debate—and one of the...

      (pp. 299-310)

      Are presidential debates getting better? And, if so, better for whom? In a study of the 1960 and 1976 series, political communication researchers Marilyn Jackson-Beeck and Robert G. Meadow identified the “triple agenda” of debates: the conflicting constituencies of campaigns, journalists, and the public that these programs are called upon 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...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 311-348)
    (pp. 349-356)
    (pp. 357-360)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 361-368)