One of the most important attributes of a successful politician is their public speaking ability. This fact has long been recognized, from as far back as the time of the Athenians of ancient Greece. A well delivered speech has the power, to paraphrase Emerson, to persuade, convert and compel an audience. Following the emergence of the Roman Empire, the great orators from the crumbling Hellenic Greece Empire traveled to Rome and coached the nascent political elite there on the traditional art of public speaking.
One of the greatest public speaker and social theorist of the period was Cicero (106-43 BC), a statesman of almost unrivalled caliber. Cicero's works, the influential De Inventione and Topics (alongside De Oratore, Brutus and Orator), continues to provide the basic fundamentals of the modern art of public speaking. While a few are born with the talent, most politicians require years of training to develop a sufficiently high level of proficiency in inflection, gesture, pitch, vocabulary and audience rapport in a public surrounding. Interestingly, one of the greatest orators of the 20th century, Winston Churchill, was born with a lisp - but he practiced it right out of his speech!
However, unlike politicians of ancient Rome, modern politicians face a far more learned audience, in a much more sophisticated world. Issues have become more complicated, and require a more than rudimentary understanding. Politicians are also required to speak several times a day on several different subjects, for several different groups of audience, and their performances, especially during debates, are used to evaluate their ability.
The United States Presidential Debates provide an opportunity for presidential candidates to present their fundamental philosophy of governance to the American public. Typically, these debates are held three times during the peak of the campaigning period. It is normally sponsored by a media agency and moderated by one of their personalities.
First Televised Presidential Debate: Kennedy vs. Nixon
Public debates are a rather new phenomenon to American presidential elections. The first official and public debates between presidential candidates were held on September 26, 1960, in the CBS-owned WBBM studio in Chicago, which featured Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy for the Democratic Party, and Richard M. Nixon, the sitting Vice-President for the Eisenhower administration, for the Republican Party. The debate between the two men, held over four one-hour sessions that were broadcast live over national television and radio, saw record breaking viewership figures in excess of 70 million Americans.
Nixon, an experienced debater from his days in Duke, was widely expected to steamroll past the young Kennedy. Nixon was indeed judged to be the winner by those listening to the radio broadcast, but in a surprising twist, Kennedy was roundly declared the victor by television audiences. His confident, stylish and charismatic appearance contrasted sharply to Nixon’s dour and fidgety stage presence, a fact that will shape presidential debates from that moment onwards as political advisers realized the influence of a candidates’ stateliness and ‘presidential gravitas’ to the American public.
It took another 16 years before the next official presidential debate was held, this time involving the incumbent, Republican Gerald Ford, and his Democratic challenger, Jimmy Carter. The debate was divided into three parts, with the first (Walnut Street Theater, Philadelphia) covering domestic policy, the second (Palace of Fine Arts Theater, San Francisco) on international policy, while the third and last one (College of William and Mary, Virginia) was an open topic session.
Carter was unanimously adjudged to be the winner after Ford fumbled under sustained pressure, most notably on the suggestion of the perceived overreaching sway exerted by Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State, on American foreign policies under the Ford administration. The debate was organized and moderated by the League of Women Voters, who was also tasked with managing the 1980 and 1984 debate.
The establishment of the non-profit and bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates in 1987, tasked with managing and streamlining all future presidential debates, was initially viewed with skepticism by some, as it was co- supervised by the former chairman of the Republican and Democratic National Committees. However, the Commission has managed every single presidential debate since 1988, and will almost certainly administer the 2012 edition as well.
Presidential debates have been now more or less settled on a preferred standard, gleamed from years of trial and errors. Nevertheless, their effect on the voting public has been significantly reduced, consistent with the continuous drop in viewership, which has consistently fell to sub-40 million figures in the last two election cycles.
Be that as it may, presidential debates remain one of the most important tools available to the electorates in evaluating their presidential candidates, and we will be providing a comprehensive coverage of all the debates leading to the 2016 presidential election (including the Democratic and Republican primary debates).