John Steele Gordon: A Short History of Presidential Debates





Mr. Gordon is the author of An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power (HarperCollins, 2004).

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the history of presidential debates, given their recent importance, is how short that history is. Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln had a famous series of debates. But that was in 1858, when both were candidates for the Senate from Illinois. They did not debate when they ran for president two years later.
 
In 1940, Republican Wendell Wilkie challenged Franklin Roosevelt to debate, but FDR, who had no wish to give his opponent any more exposure than necessary, declined. There were debates between Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver when they were both candidates for the Democratic nomination in 1956, but Stevenson did not debate President Dwight Eisenhower in the fall.
 
Not until Sept. 26, 1960, did a presidential debate take place, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the first of four debates that year. The audience was huge, about 70 million out of a U.S. population of 180 million. The issues discussed, including the so-called missile gap (with the Soviets) and the islands of Quemoy and Matsu (in the Strait of Taiwan), are now obscure at best. What is remembered is the personal appearance of the two candidates...


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