ARCHIVAL (1960 NEWSREEL):NEWS REPORT: Television brings the candidates into millions of homes.
NARRATION: The moments we remember from televised debates are woven into our political folklore. From the knock-out lines
ARCHIVAL (RONALD REAGAN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY, 1980 PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE, 10-28-80):RONALD REAGAN: There you go again
ARCHIVAL (HISTORIC FILMS, 1988 VICE PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE, 10-5-88):LLOYD BENTSEN: Senator, youre no Jack Kennedy.
NARRATION: To the cringeworthy gaffes
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-10-11):RICK PERRY: The third agency of government I would do away with, the education, uh, the uh
ARCHIVAL (10-3-00):AL GORE (SIGHS AUDIBLY)
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-10-11):RICK PERRY: Commerce and lets see
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, 10-8-04):GEORGE W. BUSH: Rumors on the internets.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-10-11):RICK PERRY: I cant. Oops.
NARRATION: But what if the way debates are often covered
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 10-3-12):ANCHOR: Lets start with the style points.
NARRATION: has missed what we really gain from them?
DAVID GREENBERG: The way were trained to think about the debates has been this idea that image triumphs over substance, I think thats false.
ARCHIVAL (1960 NEWSREEL):NEWS REPORT: Voters look, listen and make up their minds as each of the nominees outlines his program, explains his position on vital campaign issues.
NARRATION: The first public debate between presidential nominees was a creation of the television age.
ARCHIVAL (1960 NEWSREEL):NEWS REPORT: Debates seen and heard by millions of people.
NARRATION: And that first 1960 face-off between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy became a parable about the new mediums outsized influence.
DAVID GREENBERG (PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, JOURNALISM & MEDIA STUDIES, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY): Kennedy is this sort of handsome, young candidate.Hes going up against the sitting Vice President, Richard Nixon.
ARCHIVAL (JOHN F. KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY, 9-26-60):RICHARD NIXON: I of course disagree with Senator Kennedy.
DAVID GREENBERG: Nixon hadnt wanted to use makeup. He thought this would make him seem unmanly. So he had put on what they called Lazy Shave, kind of this powder makeup.
NARRATION: Over the years, conventional wisdom about the debate took shape. Kennedy won because he looked better.
DAVID GREENBERG: You see it in books by scholars. You see it repeated by network executives, Don Hewitt, who was the producer of the debates themselves.
ARCHIVAL (EMMY DOCUMENTARY):DON HEWITT (EXECUTIVE PRODUCER OF 60 MINUTES): That election turned on make-up.
NARRATION: The best evidence for this story? Its often said that TV viewers favored Kennedy, while listeners on the radio called the debate for Nixon.
ARCHIVAL (FOX NEWS, 10-11-12):KARL ROVE: If you listen to it on radio, those people overwhelmingly picked Nixon to win.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 9-17-15):CNN GUEST: Nixon won on the radio, right?
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 3-3-16):DAVID GERGEN: But people who watched it on television thought Kennedy had won.
DAVID GREENBERG: I assumed this to be true. I probably taught this to lots of college students who took my classes and my lectures.
NARRATION: But how exactly do we know Nixon won on the radio? David Greenberg dug into this question in his book, Republic of Spin.
DAVID GREENBERG: As it turns out, thats a pretty dubious and probably false claim. People have tried to track down those radio surveys. They found that maybe theres one marketing survey of a couple of a hundred people. We dont know whether these were people who were already leaning toward Nixon.Was this an older sample? Nobodys really been able to pin this down or back it up.
ARCHIVAL (JOHN F. KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY, 9-26-60):JOHN F. KENNEDY: Our generation of Americans
DAVID GREENBERG: Just by standing side by side with the Vice President and at least holding his own, if not more, Kennedy was able to convince a lot of people that he was presidential timber.
ARCHIVAL (JOHN F. KENNEDY PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY, 9-26-60):JOHN F. KENNEDY: Republican leadership has opposed federal aid for education, medical care for the aged, development of the Tennessee Valley, development of our natural resources.MODERATOR: Mr. Nixon, would you like to comment on that statement?RICHARD NIXON: I have no comment.
DAVID GREENBERG: The idea that Kennedy won because he had the better makeup job, I think has left us with a distorted view of how the presidential debates work.
ARCHIVAL (TELEVISION AND THE PRESIDENCY, 1984 TV MOVIE):RICHARD NIXON: I would urge all prospective candidates in the future. Be sure that you remember that more important than what you say, is how you look on television.
NARRATION: At that point, that debate was the most-watched broadcast in television history. The 1960 debates were widely called decisive in the election some argued they would corrupt the public judgment.
And candidates wouldnt agree to another debate until 16 years later.
DAVID GREENBERG: What people typically think is that this was the triumph of the television image over substantive politics.
NARRATION: The idea that political wins or losses can be chalked up to television image may help explain the way some media and pundits are framing the debates in the lead up to the 2020 election.
ARCHIVAL (FOX NEWS, THE FIVE, 6-27-19):JESSE WATTERS: Castro, he was polished, he was prepared. He looked presidential.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, ANDERSON COOPER 360, 9-12-19):VAN JONES: You mentioned Kamala Harris, that first debate, she was strong, but there was a warmth there.
NARRATION: And if some dismissed televised debates in 1960 as a spectacle, critics say debate coverage in recent elections has become more like a circus.
ARCHIVAL (CNN DEBATE COMMERCIAL): ANNOUNCER: This is it! Round three!
ALAN SCHROEDER (AUTHOR, PRESIDENTIAL DEBATES: FIFTY YEARS OF HIGH-RISK TV): The frills that surround the debates have really magnified in intensity over the years and it just seems like every election cycle it gets that much crazier.
ARCHIVAL (CNN DEBATE COMMERCIAL, 2019):ANNOUNCER: Two nights. Ten candidates each night. Watch the lineup take shape in an unprecedented live event.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 7-18-19):BRIANNA KEILAR: Well draw a name and a date to determine which night each candidate will appear.
ALAN SCHROEDER: A lot of this stuff is just goofy.
ARCHIVAL (FOX NEWS, 3-4-16):FRANK LUNTZ: I want a word or a phrase to describe tonights debate..FOCUS GROUP MEMBER: Sophomoric.FOCUS GROUP MEMBER: Low on substance.FOCUS GROUP MEMBER: Disgusting.FOCUS GROUP MEMBER: School yard brawl.
ALAN SCHROEDER: CNN, for instance, has done this little, squiggly line that rises or falls on the basis of whether people are responding favorably or negatively.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 9-26-08):SOLEDAD OBRIEN: This is the perception analyzer. If Andie is unhappy during the debate what shes hearing, shell turn it to the left. If she feels like wow, what the candidate is saying is really resonating with her, shell turn it all the way wonderful job Andie up to a hundred.
NARRATION: Then there are the so-called spin rooms.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 10-5-88):REPORTER: Im down here in the flea market of propaganda.
NARRATION: Where campaign operatives shill for their candidates after the debates are done.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 9-26-08):DANA BASH: We are here in the spin room and there is a lot of spinning going on.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 2008):KATIE COURIC: Hes in spin alley tonight. David go ahead, spin me.
ALAN SCHROEDER: This idea of spinning the debates in a way thats favorable to a particular candidate.Its worthless, its content that has no, you know, has a lot of calories, but it doesnt have any dietary value.
Narration: Nevertheless, many observers insist these televised face-offs remain a valuable resource.
ALAN SCHROEDER: The debates give voters something that no other political mechanism does. Candidates can prepare, and they do prepare, and they can walk in with things they want to say, but they cant really control the situation.Anything can happen and history shows that there are a lot moments along the way where the candidates were thrown off their game.
ARCHIVAL (C-SPAN, 10-13-88):BERNARD SHAW: I am pleased to welcome you to the second presidential debate.
ALAN SCHROEDER: Michael Dukakis was thought to be a, sort of a cold, emotionless technocrat that people could not warm up to.
ARCHIVAL (HISTORIC FILMS, 1988 PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE, 10-13-88):BERNARD SHAW: If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?
ALAN SCHROEDER: He gave this very cold, rational response.
ARCHIVAL (HISTORIC FILMS, 1988 PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE, 10-13-88):MICHAEL DUKAKIS: No I dont Bernard, and I think you know Ive opposed of the death penalty during all of my life. I dont see any evidence that its a deterrent.
ALAN SCHROEDER: So debates can be dangerous.
ANITA DUNN: Theres no better example than in 1976 when Gerry Ford, then President, said that
ARCHIVAL (APTN, 1976 PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE, 10-6-76):GERALD FORD: There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration.MODERATOR MAX FRANKEL: Im sorry. Could I just follow did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence and occupying most of the countries there?
ANITA DUNN: Ford dug in his heels and didnt want to apologize or clarify it right away. It gave Democrats the opportunity to reopen those questions about whether Ford was really up to the job.
DAVID GREENBERG: In politics, performance, image, appearance are expressions of substance, candidates image conveys their approach to solving problems, the way they can present themselves and communicate their ideas, their temperament.Whos to say that these arent important qualities to think about as were choosing a president?
NARRATION: Whether or not debates truly sway elections is an open question. And candidates ability to reach masses of voters themselves could one day mean theyll decide that debates simply arent worth the risk.
ANITA DUNN: The idea that a candidate can decide that theyre not going to debate, is not unthinkable whatsoever. What would be lost would be the ability for the American people to see the candidates unvarnished, accountable to each other and tested against each other.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE, 10-9-16)HILLARY CLINTON: Its just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.DONALD TRUMP: Because youd be in jail.
NARRATION: In 2016, the debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were major media events, with one drawing a record 84 million viewers. And the debates between the president and his Democratic nominee, Joe Biden, will be among the most anticipated events of the 2020 campaign.
ALAN SCHROEDER: We get least a little peek into the window of how these people operate and how they think, and how they communicate. Thats a rare and precious thing.