SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

Opinion

September 29, 2012

Shribman: Debating the debates

For decades, it was a matter of conviction among political professionals that most Americans didn’t begin to focus on the presidential election until after the World Series.

That’s just one of many old chestnuts that have been chucked out the window in the new age. Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off home run to win the seventh game of the 1960 World Series occurred on Oct. 13, some 26 days before the election. The seventh game of this year’s World Series is scheduled for Nov. 1, six days before the election. The old formula won’t work anymore.

So the new shorthand is that the real iron of the election begins with the first debate, which occurs Wednesday night at the University of Denver.

It may seem that presidential campaigns have several resets, most recently the dueling national political conventions. There’s some truth to that. But the twin acceptance speeches of late summer were campaign set pieces, with every element — the venue, the setting, the length, the topic, all of the atmospherics, including the podium and the teleprompters — controlled by the candidates’ hired hands. There were no uncertainties, no hidden obstacles, no opportunities for forced errors.

Wednesday is different in every way. The campaigns have been involved in negotiations with the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates that oversees the events and regulates the conditions. But the difference is that a live, televised presidential debate is an opportunity to see candidates interact with each other, handle unanticipated thrusts and parries, and in rare but revealing occasions show spontaneity.

It is great theater, of course. But it is also illuminating theater, even if some of the best lines (“There you go again,” former Gov. Ronald Reagan said to President Jimmy Carter in 1980) have been scripted.

There have been several revealing moments, unforgettable elements of debate folklore. Like the exasperating sighs of Vice President Al Gore during his debate with Gov. George W. Bush in Boston in 2000. Or the excruciating, awkward 27 minutes when President Gerald R. Ford and former Gov. Jimmy Carter stood stiffly at their lecterns during a power outage in the 1976 debate in Philadelphia.

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