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'New Yorker' Writer Explores History Of U.S. Political Debates


The first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump takes place two weeks from today. But as Jill Lepore writes in this week's New Yorker, calling it a real debate may be a bit of a stretch. This debate actually falls on the anniversary of the first televised presidential debate, which set the tone. It was 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. And the TV networks wanted the two men to ask each other questions, as you might expect, in the traditional sense of debate.

But both candidates demanded reporters pose the questions. What resulted, Lepore writes, was more like a parallel press conference. And Jill Lepore's here to talk more about it. Welcome back to the show.

JILL LEPORE: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So your piece looks at the history of political debates in this country. And it seems like you're lamenting the fact that these debates haven't often actually been debates in the original sense. What do you mean?

LEPORE: Well, they're really important even if they're not debates. But when that first debate happened between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960, all three networks broadcast it live. But ABC refused to call it a debate. (Unintelligible) were having some backbone there against the creeping diction change because, really, it was a joint press conference. And that's been the case ever since. There were no debates between 1960 and 1976 when Carter debated Ford. But again, they were called debates when they resumed.

And there've been debates every four years ever since. This year, where we're really having a national conversation about the state of political argument, is a good opportunity, I think, to think through what that means.

CORNISH: Yeah, you say it's actually a terrible century for political argument.

LEPORE: (Laughter) And I don't think that's hyperbolic. It's been a short century so far. You know, there's actually really interesting social science about the state of American democratic conversation, which suggests that Americans no longer talk to people with whom they disagree. It's not just this kind of question of the news feed and the funneling of your news, but we apparently have much less patience and willingness and interest in talking with people with whom we politically disagree.

And when people do disagree, they disagree in ways that are not unlike the way political candidates debated in the primary debates this year, the kind of disagreement that people would describe as personal attack and assault rather than a kind of substantive engagement.

CORNISH: Is there some irony here that back in 1960, the TV networks wanted the candidates to talk to each other and the candidates wanted reporters? - because now the candidates don't seem to like reporters so much as moderators.

LEPORE: (Laughter) Yeah, but they still don't want to talk to one another. The Commission on Presidential Debates and before then the League of Women Voters, which is really responsible for institutionalizing presidential debates, had tried again and again and again to get the candidates to do what in debate - in the world of debate is known as clashing. You know, to actually speak to one another, engage with one another, really press one another on their positions. The candidates just don't want to do that. They'd much rather speak to the press.

CORNISH: If you could have your way, what would a debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump look like?

LEPORE: Oh, gosh, you know, everybody loves the Lincoln–Douglas debates from 1858 where the opening statement was 30 minutes, the next statement was 60 minutes, the last statement was 30 minutes. Tens of thousands of people attended those debates standing, rapt. The question of stamina for both candidates, right? I'd like to hear them out at great length, one against the other, refuting each other's points. I do think that would be incredibly illuminating. But I - the story that I love second only to the Lincoln–Douglas debate is the story about a primary debate in 1992 in New York State the day before the New York Democratic primaries when Phil Donahue had arranged for Bill Clinton and Jerry Brown, and they're both running for the Democratic nomination, to debate on C-SPAN.

And Donahue welcomed them both to the studio. They sat down in a chair, the cameras rolled and Donahue said, you know, Governor Clinton, Governor Brown, have a good conversation. And then he could have just left the stage, but he never said another word. They just let them speak to one another. I went and watched that tape. You can see it online. It actually really does do something. I mean, to have two people who profoundly disagree with one another politically sit and civilly have a conversation for 90 minutes would do the American voter, I think, a world of good.

CORNISH: Jill Lepore is a history professor at Harvard University and staff writer at the New Yorker. Her piece in that magazine is called "The State Of Debate." Thanks so much for speaking with us.

LEPORE: Thanks so much for having me.


And we should say that in an interview with CNBC this morning, Donald Trump suggested that very idea - a debate with no moderators. He raised concerns that the moderators would be unfairly hard on him. He said this - that Hillary and I sit there and just debate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.