came an event. Lincoln wrote a challenge. Douglas met
it. A debate was to be staged. The two men were to stand
on platforms together and argue in seven different parts
of the state with all Illinois watching, and the whole
Illinois, on August 21, 1858, was crowded with bands, banners,
street vendors and cheering thousands, the sine qua non
of political campaigning then as now. The crucial morning
had arrived for the first of seven "Great Debates"
between the powerful judge Stephen Arnold Douglas and the
"unknown" Abraham Lincoln, candidates for the
Senate from Illinois.
12,000 persons converged on the site by foot, horse, buggy,
canal boat and rail. The anxious, noisy crowd gathered around
a covered wooden platform in the public square where the
"Little Giant" and the "Tall Sucker"
(as the press tagged them) would confront each other for
multitude had grown so thick when the hour of the debate
arrived that it took the participants 30 minutes to make
their way to the unpretentious platform. Like curious monkeys,
some adventurous spectators climbed atop the roof; the lumber
awning broke, dropping several boards in the midst of the
sophisticated Douglas was an imposing figure, the most powerful
man in the Democratic Party. Lincoln, gangly and oddly dressed,
was a relatively obscure Republican Congressman, clearly
the underdog. Lincoln’s supporters insisted the debates
were a mistake. But a Senatorial toga hung in the balance.
shorthand experts recorded every word of the three-hour
debate on extension of slavery and the reports were carried
by virtually every newspaper in the country. The "Great
Debates" soon developed into the Number One story everywhere.
and Douglas continued their face to face verbal battles
in Freeport (August 27), Jonesboro (September 15), Charleston
(September 18), Galesburg (October 7), Quincy (October 13)
and finally to Alton on October 15. Only 6,000 spectators
heard the finale of the 21 hours of debate.
second meeting, which attracted 15,000 persons, resulted
in a chain of events that altered the course of American
the debate began, Lincoln showed the text of the four questions
he intended to ask Douglas to his good friend, Joseph Medill,
then editor of the Chicago Press and Tribune. Medill
passed on three of the questions, but was aghast at one.
He attempted to persuade Lincoln not to use it, but the
question was included and marked the turning point
of Lincoln’s political career.
the climax of his summation speech, Lincoln turned to Douglas
and asked: "Can the people of a United States Territory,
in any lawful way and against the wish of any citizen of
the United States, exclude slavery from its limits, prior
to the formation of a State Constitution?"
answer to that deceptively simple question became known
as the "Freeport Heresy" and ultimately ruined
his political career. Historians say the reply lost him
the support of the South and, two years later, the Presidency.
Because the South would not support Douglas, the Democratic
Party split at the 1860 nominating convention. He did, however,
win the Senate seat from Lincoln.
a result of exposure during the debates and through newspaper
coverage, Lincoln emerged a national figure even though
the loser. The rest is history. He went on to be nominated
as the Republican candidate for President in 1860 and won
handily. Opposing three other candidates (including Douglas),
Lincoln received 1,866,352 popular votes. His platform opponent
polled 1,375,157 and faded into obscurity.
hundred and two years later, another pair of politicians
mounted a mutual rostrum and made political as well as broadcasting
1960 electronic version of the Lincoln-Douglas confrontations
-- four "Great Debates" between Vice President
Richard M. Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy was unprecedented
in every way.
before had two Presidential candidates met face-to-face
on the same platform to exchange views and, of course, never
on radio and television.
debates attracted the largest recorded audience in history.
NBC estimated 120 million persons in the United States alone
saw one or more of the debates on television. At least 20
million more heard them on radio.
millions in 100 other countries saw delayed videotapes and
kinescopes and heard the series in their native tongues.
ratio in audience is 6,250 to 1 when the initial debate
between Lincoln and Douglas is compared (using U.S. figures
alone) with the approximately 75 million persons who viewed
the 1960 opener.
per cent more Americans than ever before went to the polls
and voted for one of the two debate participants. The semi-official
tabulation released by the Clerk of the House of Representatives
puts Kennedy’s margin at 119,450 votes out of a grand total
68,836,385 ballots cast. The difference was less than two-tenths
of one per cent, the narrowest in history.
returns reveal that 64.5 per cent of the nation’s 107 million
eligible voters participated, a record high. The 1956 campaign,
in contrast, attracted 60.5 per cent of the voters, also
a record at that time.
other television series had ever agitated as much criticism
or attracted as much praise. Dr. Frank Stanton, president
of CBS, Inc., called the debate series "the only significant
step forward in campaigning since the start of popular elections."
Critics, on the other hand, labeled the confrontation as
"dangerous," "superficial," "useless,’’
as "a corrupting force" and as "a menace."
of both major parties had the unprecedented opportunity
to simultaneously look at, listen to and thoughtfully compare
their candidate and the opposition. Neither candidate individually
could have attracted so many voters of the opposing party,
in addition to the large "undecided" vote. In
the past, a Democrat would be apt to switch off the radio
or television when the Republican candidate came on – and
the pre-debate campaigns, the protagonists could only "debate"
controversial issues by issuing mimeographed press releases,
calling impromptu news conferences and by incorporating
the topic into speeches. The Republican candidate, for example,
might proclaim "I’m for it and here’s why" in
Jewett, Texas. His Democratic opponent might follow up a
few days later with "He’s wrong and I can prove it"
in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Amid the ballyhoo, the accusations
and answers became gobbledygook to the voter who did not
have the time or the inclination to follow developing stories.
Confusion and apathy generally followed. The ad lib discussions
made possible by the debates were an educational contrast
welcomed by the voters of the nation.
Kennedy and Vice President Nixon were the undisputed stars
of the 1960 election year. Their stage? Anywhere a television
camera or a radio microphone could be set up. And they had
a large supporting cast.
year’s  candidates — at all levels — spent more time
in front of more television cameras and radio microphones
than any other similar group in history. The added impact
given to the myriad campaigns dramatically demonstrated
that radio and television had become potent, indispensable
political tools and, often, the key to victory.
nominating conventions of 1948 and Inauguration Day of President
Harry S. Truman in January, 1949, were the first nationally
important events televised for large audiences. However,
the 1952 Presidential campaign was the first to be televised
nationally; the initial live transcontinental program had
only occurred the year before. (Showing President Truman
opening the Japanese Peace Treaty Conference in San Francisco
on September 1, 1951.)
aura of novelty quickly disappeared. The magic of television
exposure is today as much a necessity to campaigns at all
levels as buttons, banners and babies.
H. White, writing in Saturday Review, estimated the
two 1960 Presidential candidates would be seen in the flesh
by not more than two million citizens, leaving about 178
million (counting those in the cradle or not far out of
it) who would not have an opportunity to inspect personally
Nixon’s bushy eyebrows or Kennedy’s untameable hair.
the country has shrunk with the advent of jet travel and
instantaneous communications, the campaign trail to tiny
hamlets on one day and to metropolitan centers the next
remains a necessary and grueling aspect of modern campaigning.
candidates’ contrasting views on campaign issues would be
reported, repeated and featured in the editorial columns
of newspapers and magazines publishing millions of copies
per day. But the personal touch was missing…
would require an intimate media to project the images of
the "real Jack" and the "real Dick"
to the generally apathetic public. Radio had served a similar
purpose for the late Franklin D. Roosevelt, but television—with
its gargantuan audience potential— was the obvious medium
opinion poll based on the Rockefeller-Harriman gubernatorial
race in 1958 had revealed that television ranked just under
newspapers as the most important source of information in
helping voters make up their mind. Forty per cent of those
polled listed newspapers and 38 per cent picked television
as their most important source.
of Information Center Publication No. 67, School of Journalism,
University of Missouri.