The Counterfeit Debates
(return to Debate: Classroom Activities)

In Sidney Kraus, ed., The Great Debates: Background, Perspective, Effects Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1962, pp. 142-149.


Woodrow Wilson once told an AFL convention that "It is always dangerous for a man to have the floor by himself." G. B. Shaw declared that "The way to get at the merits of a case is not to listen to the fool who imagines himself impartial, but to get it argued with reckless bias for and against." These epigrammatic observations characterize the philosophy of the traditional public debate in English-speaking nations. The purpose of this brief comment is to provide an historical background to the Nixon-Kennedy debates, examining them within the context of the debate tradition, and judging them as contributions to it.

The public debate is one of the great traditions in American life. It provides for a forensic confrontation by those holding divergent views, an orderly and comprehensive review of the arguments for and against a specific proposal before minds are made up and votes are cast. As Reuben Davis observed of political debating a hundred years ago, "constant practice had made our public speakers so skillful in debate that every question was made clear even to men otherwise uneducated."1 Debate also provides a fair method for a minority to challenge an established majority. Indeed, Americans pay the salaries of minority members in state and national legislatures so that they will oppose in debate the majority views on controversial issues.

In short, debate has historically been regarded as an essential tool of a democratic society where the majority rules in a milieu of free speech. This concept is illustrated in a review of debate as an educational method, as a legislative process, and as a judicial procedure.

As an educational method debate was first employed more than 2,400 years ago by one Protagoras of Abdera; his pupils argued both sides of questions similar to those agitating their elders.2 In the schools of the Middle Ages debating appeared in assigned student disputations. "Some for a show dispute and for exercising themselves . . . others for truth."3 Records as early as 1531 refer to joint disputations by students at Oxford and at Cambridge,4 and this teaching device was adopted in the American colonial colleges as admirably suited to train young men for the ministry and for leadership in government. While instruction in dialectic was commonly included in the collegiate course of study, the practice of debate most often centered in the literary societies. From these society activities developed intramural and then intercollegiate debating, the latter probably dating from 1883 and a first forensic contest between Knox College and the Rockford Female Seminary.5 The college literary society of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is now virtually extinct, but extensive programs of debate on current public questions continue in high schools and colleges. They provide, as President John F. Kennedy observed, "a most valuable training whether for politics, the law, business, or for service on community committees such as the PTA and the League of Women Voters.The give and take of debating, the testing of ideas, is essential to democracy."6

As a legislative process debate is basic to democratic parliamentary action. In some pseudo-democracies, of course, there is a pretense of consulting the people by giving them a chance to vote "Yes" under circumstances that make it unlikely that they will vote "No." But when the people, or their elected representatives, have a real voice in the affairs of government, final decisions follow parliamentary debate. This has been true in American government since the first colonial legislatures, and the history of Congress could well be written in a sequence of chapters focusing upon significant debates over the bank question, the slavery issue, imperialism, the tariff, the League of Nations, the neutrality controversy before World War II, and involving such stalwarts as Benton, Beveridge, Calhoun, Clay, Corwin, LaFollette, Lodge, Taft, Vandenburg, and Webster. It is here in the debate of the legislative process, believes Walter Lippmann, that freedom of speech is best conceived, "by having in mind the picture of a place like the American Congress, an assembly where opposing views are presented, where ideas are not merely uttered but debated, or the British Parliament where men who are free to speak are also compelled to answer."7

As a judicial procedure debate has been the instrument of equity for both plaintiff and defendant in a system of justice where witnesses testify and are cross-examined, where each party is represented by a lawyer, debating the same issues before the same judge and for the decision of one jury. That this is the only way to resolve issues of guilt or innocence we believe so strongly that if a defendant is too poor to employ an attorney, the government assigns counsel to see that his legal rights are protected and that his defense is heard. Each generation in the history of jurisprudence has its roster of distinguished legal debaters, from Cicero to Grotius, and down to Morris Ernst and Thurgood Marshall.

While it has been in the classroom, the legislative chamber, and the courtroom that debate has been most systematically employed, perhaps the most significant elements of the debate tradition in America have been the forensic clashes in debating societies and in public debates on political, social, and religious questions. In the first century of American democracy, the debating society provided an important forum for shaping informed opinion. In 1824 Thomas Jefferson encouraged the organizer of the Debating Society of Hingham: "The object of the society is laudable, and in a republican nation, whose citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion, and not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of first importance."8 And in 1852 Dr. Daniel Drake, the distinguished physician-historian of the Ohio Valley, asserted that "I can recollect no association for intellectual improvement, except this primitive, old-fashioned organization, which I really think has done much good in the world."9

One of the chief contributions of these early societies was the training it offered future statesmen, sharpening their thinking by compelling them to defend their views in debate. Abraham Lincoln regularly walked seven miles from New Salem to take part in the debates of a small village society; Henry Clay joined first the Richmond Rhetorical Society, and then a similar group on the Kentucky frontier; and Tom Corwin, in Lebanon, Ohio, spoke frequently in the debates at the Mechanics' Institute.10 Society debates were truly practical schools for politics in the period of "the rise of the common man," when, as Judge Hall reported, "Everything is done in this country in popular assemblies...all questions are debated in popular speeches, and decided by popular vote."11

Even the clerics helped form the great American tradition of debate. In 1829 Alexander Campbell defended Christianity against the agnosticism of Robert Owen in a Cincinnati debate that lasted eight days; and in 1843 Campbell debated the "New Light" theology with Reverend N. L. Rice, at Danville, Kentucky, with Henry Clay as the moderator, daily for sixteen days!12

In short, whether the critical question of the day concerned slavery, imperialism, the gold standard, socialism, public power, or evolution, public debate was in order, and involved such distinguished protagonists as "Parson" Brownlow, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, William Jennings Bryan, Robert Ingersoll, Scott Nearing, Clarence Darrow, Norman Thomas, and George W. Norris.

It was inevitable that the electronic age should strengthen and perpetuate the debate tradition via the broadcast media. On a national network basis the first regular debates were probably those on Theodore Granik's American Forum of the Air. Two speakers, commonly drawn from Congress, confronted each other with sharply divergent views on a public question. Granik introduced them, asked a provocative question and then, in effect, sat back to see what would happen. What happened was a direct clash, sometimes sharpened by further questions from the moderator, with each speaker taking about half the program time.

Heard by as many as five million listeners weekly at the height of its popularity, America's Town Meeting of the Air, moderated by George V. Denny, Jr., was first fashioned in 1935 from the same tradition. "If we persist," said Denny, "in the practice of Republicans reading only Republican newspapers, listening only to Republican speeches on the radio, attending only Republican political rallies, and mixing socially only with those of congenial views, and if Democrats.follow suit, we are sowing the seeds of the destruction of our democracy. . . ."13 To reverse this tendency by compelling listeners to hear both sides, Denny adapted the pattern of debate, with two or four opposed speakers dividing a forty-minute period, and then responding to studio audience questions for the rest of the hour. For the audiences at home, Hadley Cantril found in a study of Town Meeting mail, the program had an impact: 34 per cent changed their opinion as a result of the broadcast, 28 per cent always and 50 per cent usually followed the broadcast with further discussion, and 11 per cent always and 24 per cent usually followed the broadcast with their own readings on the subject debated.14 Among new programs launched in 1960, Face the Nation, moderated by Howard K. Smith, continued the tradition.

Aside from regularly scheduled programs, the national networks have contributed to public enlightenment on current issues through special debate series, such as that between T. V. Smith and Robert Taft in l939,15 or single clashes such as that between Thomas E. Dewey and Harold Stassen in the Oregon presidential primary in 1948.16 Although these broadcast debates have always been condensed to fit the presumed patience of the public-and the industry pattern of thirty- or sixty-minute shows-they have otherwise generally adhered to the debate tradition, with equal time for speakers of comparable prominence and skill, time enough for coherent argument on a single critical question, and some possibility of direct questioning and refutation. Howard K. Smith, indeed, has referred on the air to the program he moderates as an "Oregon style debate," a pattern familiar to all intercollegiate contestants as an alternation of constructive speech, cross-examination, and rebuttal.

With all of this accumulated experience it might have been assumed that the ultimate in a union between the broadcast media and the debate tradition would have been "The Great Debates" between Nixon and Kennedy in the 1960 campaign. Certainly this is what was in the mind of Adlai Stevenson, teachers of speech, and others who supported the proposal for such contests even before the presidential candidates were named.17 In his recent and significant study of the problems of creating an informed electorate, it was again the traditional pattern of public debate that Stanley Kelley found ideal as a format for campaign speaking.18

Before looking directly at the Nixon-Kennedy "debates," however, let us isolate the specific elements of debate as it has developed in the American tradition. There are five, commonly agreed upon by writers on debate.19 A debate is (1) a confrontation, (2) in equal and adequate time, (3) of matched contestants, (4) on a stated proposition, (5) to gain an audience decision. Each of these elements is essential if we are to have true debate. Insistence upon their recognition is more than mere pedantry, for each one has contributed to the vitality of the debate tradition. For example:

(1) One man alone, unrefuted, is but a verbal shadow-boxer. (2) Even two men, without a timekeeper, have only a harangue. (3) There is no equity for unequal opponents, even with equal time; the law clerk does not oppose the veteran pleader. (4) As there is no collision when two trains pass in opposite directions on parallel tracks, so the best matched men may talk safely past each other if they have no common focus. And (5) even men on opposite sides of the same issue must try to win the listeners, not just to outwit each other. Omission of any of these elements makes a "debate" not a debate, and certainly not in the sense of the Lincoln-Douglas contests in the tradition of which we were assured Nixon and Kennedy stood.

Where did the Nixon-Kennedy debates stand? Where, that is, in terms of the accepted criteria of debate as we have known it in the American tradition?

(1) Confrontation. In the physical sense the candidates did confront each other: they could see each other in person or on their television monitors, but they did not talk to each other, much less debate. Instead they were fitted into a new format, like a double public press conference for simultaneous interviewing, and subjected to a "let's put him on the pan" procedure, first developed in the Lawrence Spivak broadcasts, and now standard in the "meet the press" type of shows. The nearest thing to actual confrontation came when the candidates braced themselves for the next probe of their reporter-interrogators. In the great American tradition of debate, however, it will be recalled that it was Lincoln who put the questions to Douglas at Freeport, not an itinerant journalist.

(2) Equal and adequate time. Equal time, yes; adequate time, no. The nature of this complaint is no mere carping that today's politicians are growing soft, compared with Lincoln and Douglas, who divided three full hours for each of their seven debates.20 Instead the complaint is that few of the questions posed to Nixon and Kennedy could conceivably be answered in three minutes, nor could even such brief responses adequately be refuted in one minute. Not only was this unreasonable; it was also dangerous. It created the illusion that public questions of great moment can be dealt with in 180 seconds. This is a dangerous fiction in a time when the future of the free world may depend upon the decisions of the American president.

(3) Matched contestants. Though it was Nixon who risked the most in the broadcasts, on other counts the candidates were closely enough matched for a real debate, had they been willing to hold one.

(4) A stated proposition. On this count the problem of the "debates" was not singular, but plural. Instead of a critical and comprehensive analysis of a single and significant issue, the listeners were exposed to a catechism as far-ranging as Allen Ludden's questions on the GE College Bowl. In fact, the interrogations suffered by comparison even with the unlamented quiz shows: contestants in those orgies of obscurantism were at least permitted to stick to one category. But the contestants, Nixon and Kennedy, fencing with their quizmasters, were compelled to contrive facile answers to queries on an encyclopedic range of topics, with none of the rhetorical elements of unity and coherence to bind them together. These limitations were especially apparent, of course, in the middle two broadcasts; the first and the fourth presumably had some central focus.

(5) To gain a decision. Judged on this criteria the "debates" were least adequate. In the debate tradition the emphasis has been upon the issues, even when, as in the Scopes trial, such dramatic personalities as Bryan and Darrow were in opposition. But Nixon and Kennedy might each have fairly quoted Lincoln's words at Gettysburg: "The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here.." Indeed, there was no deathless prose from either candidate, and least of all from Nixon. In rhetorical terms it may be generalized that their invention was shallow, their organization was adapted only to the faceless middlemen who asked the questions, and their style was unexciting. The emphasis, considering the format of the broadcasts, was inevitably upon instant reactions, not upon developed arguments. The result was sometimes to create an illusion of agreement when in fact there was none (for which Mr. Nixon's Republican friends criticized him after the first meeting)21and sometimes to magnify the extent of disagreement. In neither case did the answers contribute much to the enlightenment of listeners, or provide them a rationale for thoughtful decisions on the issues. The broadcasts emphasized personalities rather than issues, and this may have been intentional. But debates in the American tradition have been clashes of ideas, assumptions, evidence, and arguments, not "images."

It is unhappily necessary to conclude that "The Great Debates" were not debates in the American tradition, and the rhetorical critic sighs for what they might have been. In candor, however, he must concede that there are some values even in pseudo-debates. Here are a few:

(1) Even in their seven debates in the Illinois campaign of 1858 Lincoln and Douglas were heard by no more than 75,000 people.22 More than 85,000,000 persons, on the other hand, heard at least one of the encounters between Nixon and Kennedy.23 This electronic extension of political speaking is an obvious virtue.

(2) Despite the charge that the "debates" projected each candidate's "image" more than his ideas, 1960 was a campaign between two personalities, and the television listener 2,000 miles from the studio had a better close-up on his screen than did the man in the front row at Peoria in 1858.

(3) Nineteen hundred sixty was a year of great and sometimes bitter political tension and the Nixon-Kennedy broadcasts, whatever their weaknesses, did provide a much-needed example of good-tempered discussion on controversial matters. The candidates demonstrated the fact that it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable.

(4) Even short and incomplete answers to their questioners did permit Nixon and Kennedy to stir up some thinking on campaign issues by listeners. For its contribution to this good end, any device must be prized.

(5) Perhaps (and this is a critic's wistful hope), the obvious inadequacies of the 1960 "debates" may lead to more realistic debating in future campaigns. Should this be true, future critics will no doubt praise the "courage" of the two men who took the first step in 1960.

Despite these virtues of the Nixon-Kennedy broadcasts, when viewed in the long perspective of the tradition of American public debating they must be appraised as counterfeit debates.