From the Illinois Historical Digitization Projects' notes on the Lincoln-Douglass debates
The Lincoln-Douglas debates created an almost unparalleled furore throughout the whole country. In Illinois the debates were attended by immense crowds, many of the people coming for miles to listen patiently to three hour speeches. The eye of the nation focused on the State of Illinois, which was divided into opposing halves, the northern section against the southern section for slavery.
Each orator endeavored to force the other into admissions which would ruin his chances for Senatorship in these antagonistic sections of Illinois. In the second debate Lincoln put questions to Douglas that if answered to please northern Illinois must offend the South. Lincoln's friends warned him that he would lose the Senatorship if he so questioned his rival, to which he replied: "Gentlemen, I am killing large game; if Douglas answers he can never be President and the battle of 1860 is worth a hundred of this."*
The format was thus: one person spoke for 1 hour, the other spoke for 1.5 hours in reply, then the first speaker got another 30 minutes of "rejoinder". Quite a contrast to today's debates!
And I use the term 'debate' loosely when referring to the silly displays of campaign soundbitism we are accustomed to these days. Would that we could hear something other than prepackaged drivel crammed into 30 or 90 second chunks. Alas, thoughtful discourse seems to have gone the way of the Do-Do.
After class last week, while I was chilling a bit before dinner, I caught Alan Keyes on C-SPAN. Far be it from me to agree with a winger such as he, but I've always found Keyes to be articulate and fundamentally right about a number of things, including his take
The major party candidates can openly hold exclusionary and stilted pseudo-debates if they want to, but to do so under the rubric of nonpartisanship is an unacceptable lie that gravely damages our democracy.
With He Who Shall Be Ignored
(HWSBI) now in the race, I'm sure the debate over debates will revive.
As we have seen with the circuses we call debates during the Democratic primary season, having too many candidates up on stage doesn't provide for meaningful exchanges, nor a chance to really learn what a person stands for. We certainly don't want every crackpot who has delusions of grandeur to be afforded an opportunity to stand on the soapbox just because they've declared they're running for President. However, limiting the affiars leading up to the general election to the two major parties' nominees seems to be anathema to democracy.
What to do, then? I was thinking that if a candidate has the organization and wherewithal to get enough signatures to put them on the ballot in an appreciable number of states--maybe 3, or maybe the equivalent of 5% of the total votes in the Electoral College--then they should be able to participate. If HWSBI or the Green Party candidate or Joe Schlobotnik can get their act together, I would like to see some diversity in choices presented to the voters (despite my desire to see nobody mess up our chances to defeat Bush this year).
And what of the format? Clearly today's MTV-addled audiences wouldn't stand for a Lincoln-Douglass style of long-winded speechifying, but could we cover issues in a more meaningful way than we've seen of late? What about covering a subject for 5 minutes, with an 8 minute rebuttal, and a 3 minute follow-up? I wonder if Bush could go on for that long--without repeat "September the 11th, 2001" a hundred times, that is.
* Fascinating to hear how strategic Lincoln was in his approach to the debates. And really interesting to think of how slavery shaped campaigns back then in light of the gay marriage issue and its impact on today's race.