Two decent people, a few decent debates

One of the great things about presidential election years is that it affords me the opportunity to pull out my dog-eared copy of Harold Holzer’s unexpurgated text of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

I might not be an expert on 21st-century presidential politics, but when people see me carrying my Holzer, they assume I am plugged into the 19th-century politics and working my way forward.

Every four years at about this same time, candidates (mostly those who need to throw a “Hail Mary” pass) suggest Lincoln-Douglas-style debates to dignify the campaign and let the poor, uninformed masses hear the candidates at their, er, unexpurgated best.

The expurgated, underpolling, underdog candidate finally has had enough of networks nipping, tucking and sound-biting their well-thought-out arguments, and is willing to risk letting the public see the new, long-form candidate unabridged, unedited, and sometimes unintelligible.

This year is no exception.

First, a few weeks ago, the Clinton camp challenged Team Obama to a series of debates. Now McCain’s people are dangling the same high-hanging apple for Barack Obama.

The idea for the original Lincoln-Douglas debates came from the editors of a Republican paper, the Chicago Press and Tribune (now the Chicago Tribune) after Democratic papers mocked Lincoln for following Stephen Douglas city to city to try and be relevant and get “the last word” occasionally.

Defending Lincoln, the paper proposed direct debates, and Lincoln jumped on the idea like a long-legged rail splitter hopping over a two-foot-high split rail fence.

Lincoln suggested 100 separate events across Illinois, then requested 50. Side-by-side debates between the 5-foot-2-inch Douglas and the 6-4 Lincoln were the last thing the popular, front-running Douglas needed. But he agreed to seven encounters to avoid being thought a wimp.

Each debate lasted three hours, with the opening speaker taking an hour without stopping, then his opponent taking the next 90 minutes to rebut, again with no interruptions, and then the opening speaker getting 30 minutes to respond to the rebuttal.

“It was spectacle, it was theater, it was religion, it was the Fourth of July. These were the biggest events to hit the prairie in these people’s lifetimes, and they knew it,” Holzer told C-SPAN during a 1993 interview when his book first came out.

Soon, East Coast papers sensed something was up and dispatched their best reporters to cover the Lincoln-Douglas story. The rest, as they say, is history.

This summer marks the 150th anniversary of the near-mythic, oft-cited, little understood debates, which are regarded as the high-water mark for American political discourse. The four Nixon-Kennedy debates of 1960 are still the best equivalent from the Electronic Age.

In his 1988 autobiography, former Sen. Barry Goldwater (R) wrote about a 1963 plan he concocted with his political adversary, President John F. Kennedy, as both contemplated the heated presidential race the following year.

Apparently anticipating no major roadblocks to the GOP nomination, Goldwater wrote: “Kennedy and I informally agreed — it seems a pipe dream in looking at some of today’s negative campaigning — that we would ride the same plane or train to several stops and debate face to face on the same platform … It was my hope that our direct confrontation would make it clear to the American people that genuine commitment and principles are necessary to sustain all great countries.”

Fate intervened and the 1964 race between Goldwater and President Johnson is remembered not for being a high-minded, philosophical discourse but for the scary, controversial “Daisy Chain” television ad that ran only twice in some local media markets.

It showed a young girl pulling petals off a daisy while an ominous “three … two … one” countdown is heard in the background just before a mushroom cloud fills the screen.

Considered to have birthed modern-day negative campaigns, the ad achieved its intended purpose of planting seeds of doubt about the wisdom of placing hardliner Goldwater’s finger anywhere near the nuclear button.

Goldwater’s bumper sticker, “In your heart, you know he’s right,” was soon supplanted by Johnson’s: “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”

Call me a pie-in-the-sky optimist, but I think McCain-Obama might be the match-up that could fulfill the original Goldwater-Kennedy plan.

They should begin on July 4. Have a big, old-fashioned picnic down on the Mall, then at about 6 p.m. Obama and McCain start the first of a series of three-hour, unmoderated debates. At 9 p.m. they conclude their remarks, lay down their rhetorical swords and have their families join the rest of the crowd to watch the fireworks.

Next day, McCain and Obama hop the same train over at Union Station, ride a few hours down the tracks, stop in some small town, and go at it again, face to face.

The networks can figure out the cameras, crowds, big screens and sound systems easily enough. Keep the train moving cross country. Small towns. Face to face. Real.

Not a bad way to commemorate the 150th of the original Lincoln-Douglas debates and the 200th anniversary, next year, of the birth of Abraham Lincoln.

You can reach Jim Mills at jmills@thehill.com.

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