I admit. I haven’t watched a Presidential debate since Lloyd Bentsen, in what was actually a vice-presidential debate, smacked down Dan Quayle’s attempt to ride, ever so wistfully, on the coattails of JFK (claiming JFK had less political experience than he, when JFK first sought the presidency), with the remonstration, “Senator I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Cute. It made for great theatre, but hardly operated to illumine the relative merits of the men who were vying for an office that was only important on the rare occasion of a fifty-fifty deadlocked Senate, or even less probably, a dead president. Did the debate prove anything? The Bush/Quayle ticket still won the election, by riding the coattails of its predecessor, not JFK. The Dukakis/Bentsen ticket couldn’t even carry Bentsen’s home state of Texas.
But more poignantly, how does winning a debate, by whatever subjective criteria one adopts, mean a man (or woman) is fit to lead? Winning a debate means the winner was a better debater than the loser, and that’s about it, unless it can be imagined that the ability to debate reveals some latent attribute that all great leaders should possess. When in office would the ability to formulate a snappy put-down be required for the business of governing?
The presidency, or really any leadership position in any organization, requires the ability to effectively communicate the ideas and values of the organization to its members. The ability to communicate is why Ronald Reagan was an effective leader and the Bush’s, I and II, were not. It may be that debates reveal something of how well a leader can communicate. It may instead be that debates simply reveal a talent at recall (apparently not the strong suit of Rick Perry), or whether one has the ability to seem like they are saying something when in fact they aren’t. Possessing the latter attribute is a job criterion for central bank governors and other bureaucrats, but not, one would hope, for the civilian commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
Some might claim that debates reveal who has mastery over the issues. Perhaps. But is mastery over issues relevant to the person occupying the White House? Can any human have mastery over every issue that might arise among an organization comprised of over three hundred million souls that exists as the most powerful political and economic entity on the planet? Where in the debates is revealed the ability to delegate details, while staying focused on the big picture? Shouldn’t the big picture—that vision thingy—be the main concern for a President?
Conventional wisdom is that Richard Nixon lost the presidency to Kennedy because of losing the original round of nationally-televised debates in the 1960 election. Nixon looked squeamish and uncertain under the harsh lights at the podium, whereas Kennedy looked confident and well, presidential. People who didn’t see, but heard the debates on radio, thought Nixon had won the battle of ideas. People who saw the debates felt otherwise. If Kennedy won, it must not have had much impact on the election, as the race was one of the closest in modern history. Is how presidential one looks a good criterion for deciding upon a president?
In Plato’s Utopia, societal leadership would be culled from a select group of guardians that spent a lifetime in preparation for a task from which they could expect no material benefit. For Plato, wisdom was the most important attribute in a leader, and since wisdom took time, no guardian could become a leader before their fifth decade, in a time when life expectancy was about forty-five years. Aristotle felt a philosopher king, a “magnanimous man” as he put it, would make the best ruler. He too believed that wisdom was of primary importance. Wisdom requires understanding how to think objectively, removing the blinders of passion so that truth may be revealed. The ability to do so only comes with time, so Aristotle’s philosopher king would had to have been a bit older than Aristotle’s most famous pupil, Alexander, who died at thirty-three after conquering most of the known world. Presumably it was not Aristotle that designated Alexander as “the Great”.
How could a debate reveal whether a presidential candidate possessed wisdom? Gaining wisdom first requires humility, an acknowledgment of the limits of human and personal knowledge. How could humility be expressed in a debate? Could a candidate have any hope of winning office were he to humbly acknowledge his ignorance on anything, no matter how small? Would anyone believe him if he said that he need not know the particulars of each and every thing because he had experienced enough of life that he understood how to objectively reason his way to understanding so far as it was possible, no matter the subject, as the need arose? Indeed, he’d likely be laughed off the stage.
Presidential debates are what we in the Army used to call “dog and pony shows”. A dog and pony show is what lower-ranking officers put on for higher-ups when summoned to headquarters, or when suffering a general command visit at the unit. They usually consisted of a lot of meaningless slides on an overhead projector (power points nowadays), and were more an exercise in boot-licking than in idea-communicating. For the debates, the higher-ups are the American people that might wish or not to vote for a candidate. Thus they are fraught with meaningless pandering to the American proletariat, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.
It is quite remarkable that in this age of instantaneous communication, instead of campaigns getting progressively shorter, as getting the message out is far more efficiently done nowadays, they stretch longer and longer. Campaign season is like an NBA basketball season (when the NBA has one), carrying on almost continuously. How long have the Republicans been debating now? Since Obama was elected? On what point could there possibly be any remaining doubts as to their position?
Debates seem a rather foolish method for deciding upon whom might lead the nation. I mostly ignore them, and have the distinct sensation that I’m not the only one.