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Presidential debates: When the whole world is watching

Presidential debates: When the whole world is watching
Presidential debates: When the whole world is watching 02:57

In 1961, Walter Cronkite asked former President Dwight Eisenhower whether a sitting president should participate in campaign debates.

"I can't think of anything that's worse. Any man that is an incumbent has to stick to the facts. He's a responsible man debating with someone who, if he chooses, can be irresponsible."

President Trump does not share Ike's concern about sticking to the facts. The opposite; he has so boosted the fact-checking industry, it counts as government stimulus.

Of course, Eisenhower didn't only stick to the facts. 

In 1960, when an American spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union, Ike denied that the U.S. was spying. When the Soviets produced a living U.S. pilot, President Eisenhower had to admit he had not told the truth, but explained that he was trying to protect U.S. national security. 

A president has an obligation to honesty, and to secrecy. Sometimes those obligations clash. When they do, a president has a lonely choice about which is more important. That is just one of the many burdens of the presidency, for which debates are a part of the job interview. Who do Americans trust to make the toughest decisions, with imperfect information, day after day, often in secret? 

During the debate we should ask: which candidate has the character, temperament and vision to make the right call?

If you learned about the obligations of the presidency only from the moments that make presidential debate history [like tossing off quips or looking at your watch], you wouldn't know what kind of job it was. 

President George H.W. Bush during a town hall-style debate with independent presidential candidate Ross Perot and Democratic Party nominee Bill Clinton in 1992, in Richmond, Va. In 1999 Mr. Bush told PBS' Jim Lehrer what he was likely thinking when he'd glanced at his wristwatch during the debate: "Only 10 more minutes of this crap." CBS News

The presidency is about big challenges, and having the skills to manage surprises that may never even come up at the debates. In 2000, Al Gore and George W. Bush faced off three times. The word "terrorism" was only uttered once, and nearly in passing. The issue, though, would dominate the two terms of the Bush presidency. 

Debates encourage us to obsess over the momentary – gaffes, the political spat of the day, or topics that are better handled by Congress. But we should remember the real weight of the office which resembles the debate stage in one important way: a president must stand alone, and do the right thing, when the whole world watching.

CBS News' coverage of the presidential debate begins Tuesday, Sept. 29 at 8:30 p.m. on CBSN.

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Story produced by Ed Forgotson. Editor: Chad Cardin. 

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