This week, as we prepare for President Obama and Governor Romney to have the first of their three scheduled debates, the University of Chicago is making available an ebook about the history of the debates written by my dad, Newton Minow, and his colleague Craig LaMay.
Inside the Presidential Debates: Their Improbable Past and Promising Future offers readers for the first time a genuinely inside look into the origins of the presidential debates and the many battles—both legal and personal—that have determined who has been allowed to debate and under what circumstances. The authors do not dismiss the criticism of the presidential debates in recent years but argue that they are one of the great accomplishments of modern American electoral politics. As they remind us, the debates were once unique in the democratic world, are now emulated across the globe, and they offer the public the only real chance to see the candidates speak in direct response to one another in a discussion of major social, economic, and foreign policy issues.
Sadly, the marriage of television and politics in our country has been mostly a history of disappointment. In 1952, television stations — which are licensed by the F.C.C. to serve the public interest — began selling commercials to political campaigns. Other democracies have rejected this idea, and instead provide public service time to candidates during campaign periods. Over the next 60 years, more and more political commercials flooded the airwaves, forcing candidates to raise more and more money. Many of the slurs and slogans in these commercials — which are often fact-free and misleading — are now paid for by “super PACs” financed by secret donors. I believe it is unconscionable that candidates for public office have to buy access to the airwaves — which the public itself owns — to talk to the public.
The debates are one of the few features of our political campaigns that are still admired throughout the world. Candidate debates are still new in most democratic countries, even in Western Europe. Britain, often held up as a model for how to hold a proper election, only in 2010 began to have televised live debates among the party leaders vying to be prime minister.
Let me suggest that after you watch the debate on Wednesday night, you turn off your television set and do your best to avoid the spin that will follow. Talk about what you saw and heard with your family, your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers. You are smarter than the spinners. It’s your decision that matters on Nov. 6, not theirs.