Debates are over-managed

By on October 6, 2004

The first presidential debate between President Bush and Senator John Kerry took place last Thursday in Florida. The second one is scheduled for this Friday. Newspaper deadlines make it difficult for me to deal with issues raised in the first debate in this column. But the way I look at it, that’s not a big deal. If what we’re hearing from the campaigns and the media is true, not much at this year’s debates is going to be left up to chance.

Presidential debates have certainly evolved since the first one between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960. At that time, for instance, the candidates sometimes spoke for five minutes at a time. In this year’s debates, Bush and Kerry will be limited to two-minute responses and 90 second rebuttals. It will almost be like an extended sound-bite festival.

More disturbing than this, though, are the endless rules and regulations on the debate agreed to by the campaigns and the “Commission on Presidential Debates” – a group formed in 1988 to control the debates. The Bush and Kerry camps signed a 32-page “Memorandum of Understanding” outlining guidelines for just about every aspect of the debate except what shoes the candidates can wear.

In the end, this document pretty much seeks to limit any spontaneity that might occur during a debate and tailor the affair to the candidates’ wishes and not what the public might want to see or hear. A quick read-through of the thing almost makes you want to laugh.

On page two, the memorandum says that the candidates can’t make use of any props, charts, diagrams, writings, or tangible “things” during the debate. Nor can they refer to anyone in the audience at any time. If a candidate breaks any of these rules, the moderator is supposed to interrupt and inform America that the action is against the rules.

The moderators for each of the debates are supposed to sign the Memorandum or be subject to removal. As of this writing, none of the moderators for the four debates (three presidential, one vice-presidential) has signed the document, as well they shouldn’t. It would be a black eye for American journalism if we start having media members sign onto this ridiculously managed debate process proposed by the Commission and the campaigns.

And boy is it managed. According to the Memorandum, candidates are not allowed to ask each other questions (other than rhetorical questions), they may not address each other with proposed “pledges,” or move from their designated spots behind podiums – but to my knowledge, an electric fence won’t be installed.

The latter part of the Memorandum attempts to choreograph the entire proceeding from start to finish. The candidates will walk to center stage at the debate’s start, shake hands, and then get behind their respective podiums. TV cameras will be locked into place at all times.

The most disgusting item of all is that there are not supposed to be reaction shots shown on television. Some memorable reaction shots in the past were Al Gore sighing in 2000 and the first President Bush glancing at his watch in 1992. Oops, we the people weren’t supposed to see either of those.

It only gets more ridiculous. Everything from the height of the podiums to the distance between them is spelled out in detail within this Memorandum. It says that the candidates can have paper and pens to take notes with during the debate – but everything must be pre-approved by debate organizers and be placed on the podiums for the candidates ahead of time. Having it any other way would apparently be a great cause for concern.

This is what our debates have been reduced to – hashing out meaningless details and over-managing them to the point that the audience gets as little spontaneity as possible. Why can’t the candidates ask each other questions? Why don’t the campaigns want us to see reaction shots? Again, this has been written prior to the debates – but with all these rules, the debates could amount to nothing other than televised joint press conferences.


About A. J. Atchue