The Charlotte News
Thursday, August 22, 1940
Site Ed. Note: "Joint Debate" indicates how much has changed in this country with regard to presidential debates. The Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960 were the first televised debates, and the first at all since 1860, ultimately changing modern electoral politics in this country. By 1964, it was not uncommon to see televised debates for gubernatorial and congressional elections, though presidential debates did not return after 1960 until 1976, promoted then in large part by the sense of a need for a more open democracy after Watergate, and in another part by the Bicentennial spirit of that year. In both 1968 and 1972, Mr. Nixon had refused to debate, for reasons which were obvious after his five o'clock shadowed scowling performances in 1960, inevitably probably accounting for his narrow loss.
Since 1976, thanks in large part to the efforts of the League of Women Voters, there have been debates in every campaign.
While many of the complaints Cash offers up for avoiding such debates are certainly valid, they also are the only means by which we have to assess the candidates' ability to think on their feet, something absolutely necessary for an effective commander-in-chief, and even more so in the modern nuclear age than was the case in the slower-paced world of 1940 and earlier.
There are times when one must react--not sit like a knot on a log.
Too, the ability to articulate ideas and to understand the impact of what is being articulated are qualities necessary for an effective president in any age. Debates tend to extoll those virtues and expose the absence thereof. (In other words, if not a knot, then explain, please, wherefore art thou not.)
Unfortunately, debates do become, too much of the time, mere personality contests with the winner of the debate substantively often coming out the loser in the eyes of people who never met an idea they liked, but rather prefer clever punch lines and cute winks and smiles to any serious exchange on issues. Often, the "winner" on television is a different winner from that on radio or when viewed from the perspective of a cold transcript. As history, both recent and past, readily demonstrates, each forum has its advantages in revealing leadership ability, both that in times of crisis as well as that which is, or should be, the mundane norm the bulk of the time.
And we ultimately wind up therefore with the government we collectively deserve, whether our voting decision is the result of the more ephemeral assessment or from the harder substantive analysis. Regardless of which track we take or whether it is a combination of the two, it should be performed for ourselves as individuals, not by some instant Lawgiving Manu who tells us what to think immediately as the debate concludes.
To tell the truth, of all the modern debates, what we collectively actually primarily recall of them can be placed in the thimble of a single paragraph probably, that is, unless you can lay your finger on more. 1960: Quemoy and Matsu; 1976: The "freedom" enjoyed by those in Poland and eastern Europe, Pineapples or Peanuts?; 1980: "There you go again", "Are you better off than you were four years ago?", and consulting with the teenaged daughter on foreign affairs, (not at all a bad idea, really); 1984: "Where's the beef?" and "Are you better off than you were four years ago?", two questions always worth answering, actually; 1988: Whether the death penalty should be applied for a brutal hypothetical crime against a candidate's spouse--(ask a stupid, irrelevant question...), Joe Izusu, "Card-carrying..."--there's a clue..., and, though it was in the vice-presidential debate, "That's uncalled for, Senator"; 1992: Well, more substance than in most previous debates, and fewer clever lines, all to the good, as was the inauguration of the town hall format where the audience was able to ask questions, but what probably stood out for most was the third guy who once asked, "What about the airlines?" and described, "The great sucking sound...", (not really lacking in prophecy in all of that, as it has resulted); 1996: Did we have debates that year?; 2000: Winks, nods, "Tax break", on the one side, the lock-box on the other; 2004: ?
Perhaps, that is to be overly facile and cynical even. Maybe some recall other things and others yet other things which do make a manifest and serious difference in the ultimate voting choice. But we ought to be able to do better, especially with the modern means we have at our disposal, both with the internet and 24-hour cable television.
When one reads the transcripts of these debates, they can be at times quite illuminating, at least in small doses, of the issues of the day, serious and legitimate concerns, as well as the nonsensical. There are valuable exchanges in them, but debates are only as good as the questions posed for discussion and the toughness of the moderators and the format in which they occur, or, better put, are allowed to occur.
That has met with varying results through the years. Of course, for the most part, both party apparatuses vie to get the best format for their candidate's particular style or intellect--or, put another way, to cover a lack of intellect or ability to articulate ideas with an abundance of opportunity for showing off style.
But, as to the question of whether or not even to have these debates, though sometimes debates they are only in name and not in fact, they are probably the only way to prevent complete demagoguery from ruling in a television age where everything is slick and canned otherwise.
Advertisements are calculated to brainwash.
We think it would serve the electorate well to have a weekly debate after Labor Day until one week before the election. We do it now during the primary season anyway, at least the out-party does, and it serves to inform the electorate much better on the issues facing them as voters and the record of the incumbent. In an age of cable television, such programming is quite possible and would be far better than the usual gab about this or that murder case about which few except the extremely naive care one whit. (Whodunits from Hell are better left to the supermarket shelves--and the courts--for fundamental reading, after all.)
But, before that could ever occur, we would have to have two serious major party candidates, both of whom are confident in their ability to articulate ideas rather than relying on slick packaging, and committed actually to benefiting the electorate and enabling an informed choice, not just winning with the shiniest delivery to put one over on the uninformed--and networks which are more interested in informing the public than in selling them hair care products, lipstick, and military vehicles for street use, colored with Happy Who songs we once liked.
But--at latest reckoning, the debate seems to be whether to have two presidential debates, as one party wants, or three, as does the other. We know. It's Tradition. But not one so well established that we shouldn't think about improving it with times and means of dissemination of information changing.
And, re "Race Track", we offer a picture.
Same Old Bob
He's for Conscription--But on Wheeler's Terms
Bob Reynolds has changed his tune since he began to be branded generally as a Nazi sympathizer with delusions of Fascist grandeur. And in the face of this country's overwhelming sympathy for Great Britain and the growing apprehension that our own safety hung on the fate of the British fleet, he commenced discreetly to soft-pedal his tirades against this sole survivor of the Allies.
But he is the same old Bob.
His tactics, if not his speeches, manifest the willingness to trust to luck and to Hitler's benevolent intentions toward the Western Hemisphere.
Once again Senator Reynolds fails in his duty to the people of North Carolina. They have shown in all ways possible that they are for the raising of an army by conscription, and as rapidly as may be. They had ceased to listen to any rhetorical arguments to the effect that voluntary enlistments is the more democratic way of raising an army. What they want is an army, now, and they believe that conscription is the only feasible way.
Robert is for conscription: oh, quite certainly. This nation, he told an Associated Press man in Washington yesterday, "of necessity must resort to the selective service draft."
But he added a reservation which aligned him with all the obstructionists in the Senate, the men who are playing the sorry roles of French politicians. For Robert said that we must resort to conscription only if voluntary enlistments fail to provide the required number of men. In short, we must resort to conscription no earlier than sometime in the future.
What's a Few Lives as Against a Fiction?
It was nine o'clock last night on the Wilkinson Boulevard. Between Charlotte, the Catawba River bridge, and Gastonia the heavy mid-evening traffic poured in double column in each direction, the lights of the automobiles flaring blindingly against the blue gloom of the sky.
Then it began. A bootlegger named Hubert Baker was coming into town with a load of liquor, something you can buy legally a few miles away from here but which is criminal here. And the State Highway patrol, led by Corporal Dunn, was on the alert. At Catawba bridge they spotted him, and the chase began.
At 80 to 100 miles an hour the fleeing car and his two pursuers roared through the traffic all the way to Camp Greene. The bootlegger turned off into Remount Road, proceeded by dirt roads back to the bridge. From there the dizzy chase continued to Gastonia. There one of the two pursuing cars blew a tire and the fugitive got away and headed back toward Charlotte. Once more the mad sweep through traffic was repeated until the bootlegger attempted to turn around in a filling station near the city and was captured after an hour and a quarter's chase.
By one of those lucky incidents which sometimes happen, not an innocent among all the hundreds of innocents on the road was killed. By a miracle the three speeding automobiles careened back and forth through that traffic without a collision. But what are we going to say about a Highway Patrol which is presumably created to make the roads safe but which is actually charged with making them as dangerous as a battlefield? And what about a law which continually exacts this insane risk of unoffending human life for the maintenance of a fiction so unreal that Charlotte is almost as notorious for drinking as for murder?
Mr. Fisher's Character Comes Through Unscathed
The man so viciously attacked put it very well in his own words. "My friend," he said, "has been swayed by his zeal and eagerness for his client. I realize he lost his temper. There is no bitterness in my heart."
The judge, too, charged the jury to remember that it was not Mr. Fisher nor Chief Littlejohn, for that matter who was on trial and that he was not subject to center for having done his duty.
Nevertheless, Mr. Adam's tirade against Mr. Fisher in the Dale-Wishart case yesterday cannot so easily be expunged. What he evidently sought to do was to enhance the character of his client in the eyes of the jury by destroying the character of the prosecuting attorney.
Fortunately, the stuff of character is hardy enough to stand up under such verbal bludgeonings. Mr. Fisher survived the ordeal with good grace. Indeed, we cannot refrain from saying that in this encounter he came off anything but second-best.
There Is Reason To Doubt That It Is Desirable
In a letter published on this page today, Mr. W. E. Nattress, of Statesville, insists strongly that the President is duty-bound to debate Mr. Willkie in joint appearances in various points over the whole nation, as the latter suggested in his acceptance speech last Saturday.
But without prejudice to either side, that may well be questioned. That the President really means to adjourn politics completely during the campaign is of course nonsense. It goes without the saying that he would use most of the tricks in the bag, and it is probably true to charge that he is now cultivating a vast Olympian remoteness as one of those tricks, and that he plans to take as little notice of his opponent as possible by way of trying to wave him out of the picture as of no importance.
Nevertheless, the fact does remain that, with the international situation what it is, the President needs to stay close to Washington, in constant touch with every development and his advisors. And with nobody able to say what may come about any moment, it would manifestly be impossible to arrange dates for debate, with any surety that the engagement could be kept.
Moreover, and however much it may be true that politics enters into the equation, there is still a content of reality in his position that it is not the business of the President of the nation to go about the country indulging in the rough and tumble of joint debate. The case of Lincoln and Douglas, cited by both Mr. Nattress and Mr. Willkie, is not strictly to the point. Neither Lincoln nor Douglas was President at the time of the celebrated exchange. Buchanan was the incumbent. And so far as we recall, no President has ever engaged in joint debate with the man who aspired to succeed him. Lincoln ignored his opponents in 1864.
When a man is merely a candidate for the Presidency, he remains a citizen like another. But when he actually becomes President he becomes not only a man but an office--the kind of glacial symbol of the power and dignity of the United States by definition listed above all those who contend in the market place, though held accountable to them. Mr. Roosevelt may himself sometimes have forgotten that, but that does not change the fact that the dignity of the office ought always to be scrupulously preserved. The President is answerable for his record, certainly, and is properly subject to the most rigorous criticism. But that does not mean that he must be present at a given time and place to argue with his critics before the sweating throng.
Finally, it is highly dubious that joint debate would clarify anything or be healthy for the country in these times. Formal debate in general seeks to make a point, often by mere clever repartee, rather than to light up a situation. And political joint debate is particularly likely to degenerate into a dog-fight, with the air full of charge and counter-charge and bitter personalities. Both of these contenders, it is to be remembered, are gentlemen who obviously possess good, stout tempers.
What is worse, even when joint debate on hotly contested subjects can be kept on a reasonably high plane, it always tends to confuse people and to stir them into an emotional fever, to whip up angry antagonism, rather than to bring them to a mood of calm consideration of facts and arguments. The heat generated by the Lincoln-Douglas debate itself unquestionably had a good deal to do with over-riding the efforts of the most sober men in both sections of the country and hurling the nation into a war which probably ought never to have been fought.
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