I remember watching John F. Kennedy debate Richard M. Nixon in 1960. (Egads! I'm turning into one of those guys young whipper-snappers come around to interview to get "living memories".)
I happened to catch these debates, again, on public TV about 20 years ago. Watching it as an adult, I was mostly struck at how excellent they both were. Both were articulate, both were effectively making their arguments, both were impressive.
Everybody today takes it for granted that JFK won it because of make-up. Sure, he looked better, and that probably helped him some, but that debate was more a close-run thing than people today think it was.
People who watched the debate on TV gave the edge to Kennedy. People who heard it on radio gave the edge to Nixon. Some interpreted this to mean that Kennedy won on style and charisma while Nixon had the better arguments. On the other hand, Richard Nixon had a nice baritone voice. Why not credit that?
Even watching as a dispassionate observer thirty years after the fact, JFK did have appeal and energy. Nixon was occasionally given to a rather stodgy earnestness, especially this younger Nixon. (People think of Kennedy as being much younger than Nixon--they even thought that at the time--but, actually, Nixon was only 47 and Kennedy 42 in 1960.)
We didn't have debates again until 1976. Johnson wouldn't give Goldwater the time of day in 1964. Nixon debated neither Hubert Humphrey in 1968 nor George McGovern in 1972.
What everyone remembers from the '76 debate is Gerald Ford saying there was "no Soviet domination of eastern Europe" and then not even walking it back when he had a chance. I watched it in a group. Our jaws all dropped.
They say Mitt Romney has been working on some quips--"zingers," they called them, for tonight's debate in Denver. The commentators have mostly been tut-tutting about this and saying it won't work. (It is rather difficult to see Mitt Romney cracking wise and pulling it off.)
Ronald Reagan, however, got by on zingers--"There you go again" in 1980 to Jimmy Carter, and his clearly practiced, rehearsed, lame, but mildly humorous response to "the age issue" in 1984: "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience." Heh.
In more recent years, Mike Dukakis was found wanting for not responding more emotionally to the hypothetical circumstance of his wife being raped. Who asks such a question in the first place, and for what possible purpose? (This is reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson who once told a reporter, "You get to ask a question of the President of the United States, and you ask a chickensh*t question like that?")
In 1992, George Bush Sr. was caught looking at his watch, as if to say, "How long, O Lord?" Bill Clinton, on the other hand, felt peoples' pain, and quite effectively too. (I know I watched it, but have no memory of the debate between Clinton and Bob Dole in 1996.)
As you can tell, my own reaction has often differed from that of the post-debate analysts. That was no more true than in 2000. As the debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush began to unfold, I actually started to find myself feeling sorry for George W. Bush. I thought he was making a complete fool of himself--"fuzzy math!" I remember thinking, "If this was a heavyweight fight, they'd stop it."
Yet, next day, all the commentators could talk about was Al Gore's sighing, something I myself had not even noticed at the time.
Then in 2004, President Bush had that weird contraction taped to his back during his debate with John Kerry. It seemed to me that it was some kind of communication box and people were feeding him answers. The campaign went into denial mode, which the media bought, and nothing much was heard of it.
Even with the canned answers, President Bush was not good in the first debate. He fumbled around a lot, and interspersed his rambling remarks with "hard work, hard work, hard work." You thought: No wonder Iraq is so messed up.
The 2008 debates were anti-climactic since everyone pretty much knew that the Democratic candidate would win the election. They had known this since the first day of the financial crisis in mid-September. That's when Barack Obama jumped to a seven-point lead which he never relinquished.
John McCain did better in the debates than many thought he might, but still didn't make much of a dent. Most polls gave the edge to Obama. All I remember is that McCain looked kind of "stumpy" and his suit didn't seem to fit.
Ford's Theater, the place where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, is run by the National Park Service. The Park Service won't be selling Bill O'Reilly's book about Lincoln's assassination because it doesn't cite sources and it's ridden with factual errors, not that that should come as a surprise to anyone. For example, the book keeps referring to the Oval Office when the Oval Office didn't even exist until 1909.
The world doesn't lack for Lincoln books, many of which are excellent--David Herbert Donald's excellent biography comes to mind, as does Ron White's, Stephen Oates', and even George McGovern's slim volume for the American Presidents' series. With these treasures available, why would anyone read Bill O'Reilly?
O'Reilly's book has received pretty favorable coverage from the mainstream media, including the New York Post and NPR. Yet, the customers who have actually read it don't think much of it. As Justin Elliott notes, the average customer rating at Amazon is only two stars out of five, which if you follow Amazon reviews, is pretty abysmal.
A car gets swiped by aliens, goes to another planet, but then goes through a black hole and winds up sliding down an Aztec ziggurat to the cheers of the crowd--a nice technical display, and a smidgen of a story, which makes it the only Super Bowl ad so far that isn't completely unintelligible or lame beyond words.
In fact, through the first quarter, there seemed to be an uninspired over-reliance on the old tried-and-true, which means somebody getting unexpectedly whacked and set on his can, like the Doritos ad, or inexplicably shooting a can of Pepsi at a someone minding their own business, or, Pepsi again, shooting a can of Pepsi into someone's "groin area," as they euphemistically say in the sports business.
I'm not normally very interested in the ads, nor any of the pre-game hoopla. I don't want to see any exploding scoreboards, or rock bands, or fireworks, or celebrities urging us toward this or that saccharine sentiment. I just want to watch a football game.
That said, even the average football game is full of commercials, and even more so in the Super Bowl. You can't avoid them entirely. Therefore, to look at it philosophically, you tell yourself that you are about to see the new products of the best-and-brightest marketing minds on Madison Avenue. So far, looks like they're in about the same league as the brainiacs on Wall Street.
Oh yeah, and the movie trailer for something called "Cowboys and Aliens"? Believe I'll pass.
Public Policy Polling didn't measure the trust-level of PBS last year so we don't have comparison figures. Still, 50% of viewers "trust" PBS, while only 30% do not, which is a far better showing than any other network.
Fox news took the biggest dive since last year. Last year, they were on the positive side of trust, 49/37. This year, the number who trust Fox fell from 49 to 42, while those who distrust it rose from 37 to 46.
CNN treaded water, while NBC, CBS, and ABC enjoyed a nice bump.
Gene Lyons reflects upon today's media in an article titled "People, we are in deep trouble." In the course of arguing his case, he offered up this 1943 quote from George Orwell as he reflected on the Spanish civil war:
"I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed ... I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various 'party lines.' "
Lyons runs through a list of bogus hoaxes perpetrated upon the public by a partisan press--local coverage of a black man's trial in the south, for example, Whitewater, the New York Times and Washington Post trumpeting the case for the war in Iraq.
In the case of Fox news, yet another study released this week confirmed what we already know: Their viewers are less informed on actual facts than are viewers of other news programs.
What this misses, however, is that a good-sized demographic--staunch conservatives--wants its own version of the news, its own worldview appearing to be dominant. Fox news represents its market. It didn't create it.
Besides, Fox is not necessarily the only offender here, just the biggest. Fox's coverage of the 2008 Democratic campaign was, in my view, often more objective than coverage at, say, MSNBC.
In any case, even without Fox, does anyone really think that the public square would not be filled with lies and deceptions? Billions of dollars are at stake, as well as tons of power. All the world's religions teach the dangers of both, for multiple reasons, one of which is that lies tend to swirl around both with special vigor.