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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

What Are You Doing Tonight? The Presidential Debate? Well, Maybe . . .

By Peter Toll

Presidential debates have taken on something of a be-all, end-all media allure these days.  Here in Clackamas County, a lovely, outdoor, social evening in the 80-degree weather is being spurned by some folks unwilling to skip tonight’s debate. They want to see Joe Biden crush Mr. Trump.

We all know television has played an immense role in the debate scene.  John Kennedy all but ate Richard Nixon alive in the Presidential Debate on television in 1960. It’s not so much that he was smarter, or more erudite, or more thoughtful, though he was those. No, it was because Nixon looked like a thug and JFK came off as suave, debonair and, yes, handsome.

Aha!  Said the pundits in 1960. It doesn’t matter what a person says, it’s what they look like! Thus began the first real electoral change from the grass roots – it wasn’t so much what you said, or what you stood for, but how you carried yourself.  What kind of visual/emotional impression you made.  Especially emotional, that elusive yet unknown quality.

Tonight is a far cry from a true debate. My alma mater still offers a degree in rhetoric, for example, which can be viewed as a style of speech in debate. “Persuasive conversation,” written or verbal, is how my cousin describes it. A rhetoric professor with a Phd at a southwest university, he remembers when debate meant something wholly different than it does now.

There were serious rules adhered to by the gentlemen debaters (always men in those days). You must use facts, knowledge, verbal skills and memory. Tactics included cleverly and skillfully turning your opponent’s argument against him. But nothing personal; no nasty personal insults. There was a strict format: speak, listen, respond, listen, speak again. Close.

No, you had to win because you were smarter, not because of anything else. Not your looks, not your supporters cheering from the gallery, not your parental pedigree. 

A debate demanded facts; it demanded truth. It demanded honesty, and it excluded, by rule, demagoguery, ugly personal insults, sneaky, underhanded backdoor tricks and the like.  

At the presidential level, that attitude pretty much drove elections in most of the early 20th Century and some of the 19th Century: A contest whereby the more intelligent and persuasive person tended to prevail. Journalists loved it. It was facts, not gossip. Intelligent discussion, not trivial foolishness; it included historical thought and ideas. Real world stuff!

Simply put: The candidate who could properly convince the voters of his superior knowledge and ability to improve peoples’ lives most often won.

Hello 2020. Jack Kennedy made it important how you handled yourself, as it were, on the podium of history. That’s what turned “debate” on its head.

When Joe Biden meets Donald Trump tonight we have the old school political gentleman against the -- sorry to say it -- psychopathic, narcissistic, chronic liar. They’ll stand face-to face quarrelling over issue-based questions from journalists hearkening back – in their dreams -- to when savvy journalists were all but hand-in-glove with leading policy setters.  

In other words, this highly vaunted “debate” is simply a Joe vs. Don verbal brawl in the parking lot.  Or, as my dear amigo in Montana puts it, “a little gravel dancing.” 


Helping the sponsoring network make a ton of money, of course (this is, after all, America), these two guys will be in different worlds. Joe would actually, truly debate. Facts, figures. Realities. Don never heard of the word “debate” other than in its TV application. He’ll be lost but he won’t mind because he is totally ad-lib-seat-of-the-pants. It’s what he does.

 Don, poor Don, will get his butt kicked in the debate. But Don, critically warped as he is, will win both in his view and that of his mouth-breathing followers. And a whole lot more will join them because many of the social/cultural/education rules have changed.

Joe wins the smart people. Don wins the others. And the network makes a ton, while the newspapers gin up a jillion snappy headlines world-wide. (Yes, real newspapers still exist.)

And the well-meaning voters, with or without a degree, who want to “know more about the candidates” will come away scratching their heads—or not.  Issues? What? 


Others may just say, “Hey, if it’s alright with you, I’ll watch the debate, but if it gets boring, I’ll drop by your backyard . . . with a mask, of course.”  Of course.

Peter Toll is a long-time Clackamas County political observer and participant. He lives in Lake Oswego.