Summary of “Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV”

The latest in my debate-prep reading is Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV by Professor Alan Schroeder. While this book does not go into much detail explaining presidential debates, it is an excellent overview and description of the history and process of presidential debates in the modern television era. He goes through every stage of game, from the campaign debates over the format and number of the debates to the ultimate effect on their audiences after all is said and done. Here are some of the highlights:

  • The role of the vice presidential debaters is simply to “lambaste the opposing presidential ticket” (75). Because they’re not at the top of the ticket, they have more latitude to “go negative” and it often makes for more lively and entertaining debates.
  • Former president George H.W. Bush is not a fan of the current debate format. In 1999 he told Jim Lehrer that “I think it’s too much show business, and too much prompting, too much artificiality, and [they’re] not really debates” (150).
  • Janet Brown, the current director of the Commission on Presidential Debates, prefers live audiences of a few hundred people. The more intimate, the better. Also, average citizens stand almost ZERO chance of getting to see the debate in person. The tickets are split up into thirds: a third to each candidate’s campaign and a third to the hosting institution. There aren’t many to go around.
  • During the 2000 campaign, Al Gore’s pre-debate prep ritual consisted of “a heavy intake of energy-boosting food and drink” including “four or five diet colas and … several protein bars” (229). 
  • Post-debate “spin” has now become professionalized. This is the practice where candidate supporters start “spinning” the events of the debate in a manner favorable to their particular candidate (256). (In times like this, reality becomes a silly afterthought.)
  • Nevertheless, the post-debate news coverage and “spin” seems to matter in shaping people’s judgments about the events of the debate (275). 

My next post will outline the final chapter which discusses the pros/cons of the modern debate format, as Professor Schroeder sees them.

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