Lights, Cameras…Presidents

The first televised U.S. presidential debate was held on this day in 1960, Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon meeting to discuss domestic issues. Three subsequent debates were held before the November 8th election — one of the closest in history, Kennedy receiving 49.7 percent of the popular vote to Nixon’s 49.6 percent. Some commentators attribute Kennedy’s victory to his more relaxed television presence, especially as demonstrated in the first debate. In his 1962 memoir, Six Crises, Nixon conceded that he had made a fatal mistake in his preparations: “I paid too much attention to what I was going to say and too little to how I would look.”

The title of Jim Lehrer’s Tension City (2011), his insider’s account of forty-eight years of presidential debates, comes from George H. W. Bush’s term for them. Lehrer’s book describes the evolution of the debate format as an attempt to create or capitalize on this tension, the more scripted early debates giving way to the more spontaneous, gloves-off style now favored. In his chapter on the “Killer Question,” Lehrer cites as an example of the modern style the first question asked in the second Bush-Dukakis debate during the 1988 election:

Moderator Bernard Shaw of CNN was the second moderator ever permitted to ask an original question. He began, “The first question goes to Governor Dukakis. You have two minutes to respond. Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

There is now a universal recollection that everyone who was watching had a breath hitch or some kind of “Oh my God!” reaction.

And they reacted again — in disbelief or surprise — as they heard Dukakis calmly, without even a hint of emotion, answer: “No, I don’t, Bernard, and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all my life….”

The consensus among pundits was that, by remaining dispassionate, and true to his platform rather than his wife, Dukakis lost the debate on this very first question. As articulated by Bush to Lehrer afterwards, the only human and vote-winning response to such a question is the politically incorrect one: “I’d kill him if I could get my hands on him.”

Lehrer may need to come out with a revised edition of Tension City, updating the most recent Killer Questions; he is moderating the first Obama-Romney debate, scheduled for October 3rd.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at