Debates are Show Business

They are not usually about Issues. In this primary process, they are about Who Is the Best Candidate?

Who can Win?

Ever since the first televised debate between Kennedy & Nixon, voters have often judged candidates on inconsequential issues… Nixon lost the 1960 debate, and election, because of such trivia as how much did he sweat?…How much makeup did he have on?

As the story goes, voters who listened to the debate on radio were overwhelmingly convinced that Nixon had won on the issues, but Kennedy was the clear victor among those who actually watched the debate.

Kennedy won because he looked cool and composed on stage next to the Vice President. He looked like he knew what he was doing. He looked like he belonged there.

In today’s New York Times, Don Hewitt, the director and producer of the Kennedy-Nixon debate of 1960, said ABC’s structuring of the questions was an acknowledgment that a debate entails “a big dose of show biz” and “trying to keep an audience.”

“When you’re in television,” Mr. Hewitt said, “that’s your job.”

This is what counts in debates: How does he look? Will he fight for us? How will he take the pressure? Can he be stumped? Will he make a gaffe?

When old time political bosses were picking candidates the central question they thought the voters would ask was:


And it is both complicated and simple and….sometimes based on the trivial. Is he too elitist? Does she really care about us? Will he take care of us?

Voters believe they can tell this by how candidates look and act under pressure. It all counts. What kind of bowler is Obama? How well can Hill throw back a shot?

Debates are an obvious testing grounds. Voters are picking the most powerful person in the world. They want answers about personal associations, beliefs, character, and statements at private fundraisers. Personal baggage tells a lot.

Remember the only Democrats who have been elected president since John Kennedy have been southern moderates.

Bill Clinton, for all his foibles, did pass the Is He One Of Us Test

Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry did not.

The Republicans managed to stick an elitist perception on their candidacies and the Democrats didn’t stand a chance.

Come November the Republicans are going to cram this elitist perception of the Democratic nominee down the throats of the voters. They will try to “define” the Democratic nominee…just as they defined Kerry as a windsurfing snob, instead of the war hero he was.

Obama (or Hillary) needs to be ready for this.

Obama should stick with basketball!

The “issues” are not really decisive for Democratic voters now. Obama and Hillary have virtually the same positions.

The issues are boring.

But that doesn’t mean the debates have been exercises in futility.

The most important question for Democratic voters– what the primaries are all about, now– is who can defeat McCain. All other questions are inconsequential. And this question of electability was what the recent ABC debate was all about.

Voters know that they will be lied to. During the debate when Hillary was asked if Obama can win, she lied. And when Obama was asked the same question, he lied. Everybody knew it, because what they are saying in private is …the other guy can’t win.

It doesn’t really matter who opposed the Iraq war first or whether there were snipers in Tuzla or what hate Rev. Wright spewed forth…

Of course, issues like Jeremiah Wright, flag pins, Clinton’s pardons, Bittergate, William Ayers, and the Tuzla airport will play a role in the election.

Obama will probably be the Democratic nominee, and he will be a stronger candidate for having confronted trivial issues. ABC and Hillary Clinton will be remembered as gentle questioners compared to what the Republicans will throw at him.

Fortunately, in the general election candidates will have real issues to debate, —- the economy, the war, our position in the world, and maybe by then the voters will have decided that Obama really Is One Of Us.


(Parts of this blog were cross posted at Huffington Post)

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About Blake Fleetwood

Blake Fleetwood Blake Fleetwood was formerly on the staff of The New York Times and has written for The New York Times Magazine, New York Magazine, The New York Daily News, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Village Voice, Atlantic and the Washington Monthly on a number of issues. He was born in Santiago, Chile and moved to New York City at the age of three. He graduated from Bard College and did graduate work in political science and comparative politics at Columbia University. He has also taught politics at New York University. He can be reached at
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8 Responses to Debates are Show Business

  1. Janis says:

    Two quick comments:

    1) They are also a matter of how one deals with stress. I don’t care much for them themselves (although I admit I took great pleasure in knowing that Hillary did well), but Obama’s behavior since taking a hit has been revealing.

    2) The Kennedy/Nixon debate is always invoked in things like this, with the added caveat that those who listened thought nixon won; this is often invoked to prove that Nixon really won, but those who watched it only thought that Kennedy won because was better looking, chose his clothing better (dark suit against a grey-appearing background), and looked healthier.

    Never forget that Nixon did sound better than Kennedy — lots better. He had a voice that was much easier on the ears. Kennedy’s accent was lodged so far up his nose that it would have taken a drain snake to get it out. TV was biased for Kennedy; radio was biased for Nixon.

    Also, and I wish I had a source for this, I recall hearing a rather funny story about how they were prepping the candidates for their debate appearances. They had put a ton of makeup on Nixon because he was sick — but one of his handlers actually went up to Bobby Kennedy and asked him, “How do you think he looks, okay?”

    Kennedy’s inevitable response was, “No, he needs more makeup.” Who in their right mind asks the brother of the guy you’re running against for an opinion, and takes it?

    Anyhow, minor nits and some additional anecdotal garbage worth what you paid for it. It’s Friday …

  2. Janis

    Hey — what’s wrong with Kennedy’s accent? I guess you haven’t spent much time in Massachusetts!


  3. Janis says:

    Nope. 🙂 And the few times I have been there, I honestly heard no one who sounded like that. Is it terribly common?

  4. Janis

    It depends on the area in MA where people are from. I have some friends with very think accents and others who hardly have any at all. Mine is minimal – where I get caught is saying things like “idear,” “lobsta” and “New Hampsha.”

  5. Janis says:

    Int’resting. I’ve just about gotten to the point where I’ve got the voice frmo nowhere, except for “water.” Phila water == “wooder.” It’s the perfect shibboleth.

    Of course, all I have to do is visit family back home for twelve seconds, and it all comes right back. 🙂

  6. hummingbird v says:

    ;Hey, would people please stop with the “he’s probably going to be the nominee” line, which is usually tucked in among some other interesting thoughts. Where’s the faith?!! I do not for a moment believe the BO is the likely nominee. STOP saying that.

    There is still too much that hasn’t happened yet. Hill is favored in primaries and the tide is turning. The more time we have to get to know the other guy the more we REALLY get to KNOW him… and the shine is losing it’s luster, big time.

    Give the remaining states their chance to weigh in without assuming any particular outcome at this time just because of past outcomes. ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE which means Hill has as much chance as anyone…. I was in Texas and what’s happening on the ground is so different from the media take or the blogsphere. People just LOVE her and want her to win.

    It could happen! There’s no “probably” only POSSIBILITY.
    Go Hill Go!

  7. Janis says:

    hummingbird, I tend to agree. The superDs are all waiting to see what size thumping is administered in PA, and will start leaking one way or another afterwards. I’m just swinging between optimistic and afraid of jinxing things.

  8. John Stone says:

    I am not concerned about the accent of the Kennedy’s or John Kerry. what about the accent of our Texas Cowboy President or the monotone voice of Dick Cheney? There are or should be important things to worry about, like what you stand for and what you do. I have have a good friend from Massachusetts that has almost no eastern accent at all, and I would not care at all if he did. I am from Iowa and some people say I have a midwestern accent. Who is more “one of us” Al Gore and John Kerry or George Bush? I think we all know the answer to that question.