Let the debates begin

(CBS News) "There you go again . . . "

And here WE go again. The primaries are done, the conventions are over. Now to the debates, when the candidates for president and vice president come face-to-face, and millions upon millions will be watching.

If the past is a predictor, there will be unforgettable moments, such as Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle, "You are no Jack Kennedy."

Those of us who've made reporting on politics our life's work learned a long time ago, the debates are about more than what the candidates say.

"Most of the polls - as they are in this case - show that there are very few undecided voters. But there's still a huge number of people who watch the debates," said PBS' Jim Lehrer. "And the reason they do that is to take the measure of the individual."

Lehrer is the dean of debate moderators - he's been at it for 24 years - and he has put more questions to more candidates than any of us.

"I've always thought that the vote for the presidency was different than any other vote we cast," said Bob Schieffer. "The presidency, it seems to me, comes down to, 'Who do we feel most comfortable with in time of crisis?'"

"That's exactly right," said Lehrer. "Bob Gates, the former Defense Secretary, said, 'Temperament. There's such a thing as presidential temperament. You can smell it. You can feel it. It's there. And some people have it, and some people don't.'"

Considering the importance we place on debates, it's hard to believe they're fairly new to American politics. They began just 52 years ago, with Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy's televised encounter on September 26, 1960.

"Some people who listened to it on the radio thought that Nixon won," said Schieffer. "But it was generally conceded that people who watched it on television were pretty convinced that Jack Kennedy won."

"Absolutely," said Lehrer. "What you say is important, but what you look like can be also as important. In Nixon's case, he perspired. He had the audacity to perspire during the presidential debate!"

Lehrer said that, as a consequence, candidates now negotiate how cold the debate venue will be. "It's like a meat locker, and that's the reason . . . nobody wants to perspire because of what happened to Nixon'!" he laughed.

Even a great communicator like Franklin Roosevelt knew the risk of debating. He was a heavy favorite to win reelection in 1940, so when Republican Wendel Wilkie demanded a debate, FDR ignored it. He knew that just appearing on the same stage with the president enhanced the stature of any challenger.

It's hard to know where we'd be today if Nixon had followed Roosevelt's lead in 1960, but once burned, Nixon never debated again - nor did Lyndon Johnson, who had preceded him to the White House. So there were no debates in 1964, 1968 or 1972.

Only after his poll numbers dropped did Gerald Ford agree to debate challenger Jimmy Carter in 1976.

"I asked Ford, 'Well, why did you agree to the debate?'" said Lehrer. "He said, 'It was my only hope.' He was down and out because of having pardoned Nixon. That's why he was so far down. And he said, 'I needed to do something. And if I could get Jimmy Carter to debate me, I might have a chance.'"

Yet, Ford ended up hurting his chances with this statement: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration."

It was a serious gaffe in the Cold War era when the Soviet Iron Curtain extended across Europe.

But it made for compelling TV: Each of the Ford-Carter debates drew in more than 60 million viewers.

The public had spoken, and politicians heard the call: Debates were here to stay.

"No candidate could ever get away without debating in a national form on television now," said Lehrer.

In our highly-partisan era, they're maybe the one thing that can get tens of millions from both parties to sit down and hear what the other side has to say.

  • Bob Schieffer On Twitter»

    Bob Schieffer is CBS News' chief Washington correspondent and anchor of Face the Nation.

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