“GOLDEN MOMENTS IN TELEVISED CAMPAIGN DEBATES”
Lecture by Alan Schroeder
Asociacion Comunicacion Politica -- Bilbao, June 2010
In about 70 countries around the world candidates for national
office have walked that most dangerous of tight-ropes: live televised
debates. TV debates take place in countries large and small, in every
conceivable format, under a vast variety of political and media
conditions. Yet one universal truth has emerged: debates function as
television shows first, and political events second. Debates are
theater, complete with drama, stars and supporting players,
rehearsals, performances, reviews, and – above all -- risk.
This year we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the historic first
debate in Chicago between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, the
patron saints of TV debates. According to the mythology, Kennedy
won because he looked better on camera. But it was more than that:
Nixon completely misunderstood the event, approaching it as just
another campaign appearance instead of a revolutionary new
television genre. Where Kennedy held practice sessions with his staff,
Nixon read briefing books alone. Where Kennedy met personally with
the debate producer before the event, Nixon sent a surrogate. Where
Kennedy rested the day of the broadcast, Nixon gave a speech. On
every conceivable level Kennedy got it and Nixon did not.
But let us travel beyond Kennedy and Nixon to consider other,
more recent examples of televised debates from around the world.
Our focus is on the golden moments that define this increasingly
important institution – and our global tour begins in South America.
The absolute minimum requirement for any debater is to show
up. However, in 2008 Paraguayan presidential contender Fernando
Lugo proved that it is possible to dominate a debate even in absentia.
In an act of sheer audacity Lugo canceled his appearance in the final
debate with one hour’s notice. In a press release hand-delivered to
the set Lugo declared that “political conditions did not exist” for his
Here is how the moderator, Paraguayan journalist Humberto
*** CLIP #1: LUGO’S NO-SHOW (1:30):
Note: Play the first 1:30 of the clip.
In this case the political risk paid off: Fernando Lugo is today the
president of Paraguay. But it’s not a strategy I would recommend.
For Peruvian candidate Ollanta Humala in 2006, the issue was
not a boycott of the debate, but rather a late arrival. Humala found
himself physically blocked him from reaching the debate hall by
supporters of his opponent, Alan Garcia. Meanwhile, Garcia started
the debate anyway, telling the Peruvian people that Humala had
stopped at a bar for a sandwich. Finally, twenty minutes late, Humala
showed up – and that’s when things got even stranger.
*** CLIP #2: HUMALA’S FLAG (1:15)
Note: Play the first 1:15 of the clip.
Most candidates find it advantageous to debate their opponents,
not the moderator. A well-delivered jab at a fellow debater is like
catnip to the audience and to the media, as we see in perhaps the
most famous of all debate putdowns: “Senator, you’re no Jack
Kennedy.” What makes this line so effective, in my opinion, is Lloyd
Bentsen’s ability to make it sound spontaneous, even though he had
been prepared for the situation. At a campaign rally a few weeks
before the debate Dan Quayle had compared himself to John F.
Kennedy. Opposition researchers in the crowd took note, and passed
the information to Bentsen’s debate team.
As you watch the clip, pay particular attention to the crowd
reaction, then I’ll tell you the back-story.
*** CLIP #3: “YOU’RE NO JACK KENNEDY” (1:15)
Note: Start the clip at 2:15, play through to the end.
Now, about that crowd reaction: In American presidential
debates there is a three-way distribution of tickets for seats in the
debate hall: a third go to the sponsor, a third to the Democrats, and a
third to the Republicans. For this debate, which was held in a huge
convention hall in Omaha, the Democrats loaded the audience with
die-hard Bentsen supporters and organized them into cheering
sections. Their behavior was so rowdy that the rules were changed,
and today Democrats no longer sit with Democrats and Republicans
with Republicans. Audience members are deliberately interspersed —
no more red states and blue states.
Bentsen-Quayle reminds us that in America, at least, vice
presidential debates are usually more entertaining than their
presidential counterparts. Let’s revisit 2008 and the very beginning of
the highly entertaining Sarah Palin-Joe Biden debate. This little
exchange illustrates how easy it can be for viewers of TV debates to
misread what they see.
*** CLIP #4: “CAN I CALL YOU JOE?” (:30)
Note: Start clip at about 1:00, where the candidates are introduced,
play for another :30.
As I watched this scene on live television, I interpreted it as a
tactical maneuver: Palin attempting to rattle Biden at the last minute.
But as it turns out, something else was going on. During her practice
sessions Palin had developed a bad habit of mixing up the names
Biden and Obama, referring to her opponent as “Senator O’Biden.”
Calling him “Joe” during the debate was Palin’s way of avoiding this
mistake on the air – though she actually did slip once during the
program and say “O’Biden.”
Because debates are theatrical exercises, their success or failure
depends heavily on casting – in other words, the co-stars make the
show. One of the most interesting combinations, as we found with
Palin and Biden, happens when men debate women. Perhaps the
best-known – and most contentious – example comes from France in
*** CLIP #5: SARKOZY/ROYAL (1:10)
Note: Play the first 1:10 of the clip.
Things could have been much worse for Sarkozy and Royal.
Consider this classic moment from a debate between two senate
candidates in Romania — a clip that has become a YouTube favorite.
*** CLIP #6: WATER GLASS (:36)
Note: Play entire clip.
I hardly need to remind this audience that political campaigns
are all about control. Yet by definition live television cannot be
controlled – which is what makes debates so perilous for everyone
involved. For years, paranoid handlers have attempted to manage the
visual look of debates by restricting camera angles. We saw this most
recently a couple of months ago in Britain. But the camera has a way
of seeing things on its own terms, as many a candidate has learned
the hard way. Exhibit A:
*** CLIP #7: BUSH LOOKS AT WATCH
Note: Play the first :10 of the clip.
Bush checking his watch is such a tiny gesture, and yet for the
audience and the news media it became emblematic. And of course
we later learned from Bush himself that he really did want the debate
to be over.
Debaters must assume that they will be on camera at all times.
Bill Clinton understood this: he used to practice his facial expressions
for those moments when he would be on screen but not speaking. To
an increasing degree, debate formats require candidates to remain on
camera non-stop, as in this 2010 presidential debate from Costa Rica,
“Asi Va el Debate.”
*** CLIP #8: COSTA RICA SPLIT SCREEN (1:30)
Note: Play the first 1:30 of the clip.
That chiming sound at the end of the segment is not so unusual.
As I watch debates from around the world, I am struck by how much
they have in common with game shows, especially in their formats and
visual style. Let’s look at two examples: first, from the Netherlands in
2006 and second, from the Philippines last year. The Dutch program
is called “Speed Debate.”
*** CLIP #9: NETHERLANDS “SPEED DEBATE” (1:20)
Note: Play the first 1:20 of the clip.
*** CLIP #10: FILIPINO GAME SHOW DEBATE (1:00)
Note: Play about the first 1:00 of the clip.
Whatever the format, successful TV debaters must know how to
seize any opportunity that presents itself. Here is one of the masters,
Bill Clinton, in the town hall debate of 1992. Watching this man in
action, you realize why during the pre-debate negotiations he was the
one to suggest this format.
*** CLIP #11: CLINTON TOWN HALL DEBATE (1:45)
Note: Play the woman’s question at the beginning of the clip, then
advance to 2:30 where Clinton answers, play through the end.
Journalists often ask me to name the best presidential debater in
history, and my answer is Bill Clinton. The only American politician
who even comes close, interestingly enough, is Hillary Clinton, who
was terrific during the 2008 primaries – much better than Barack
Obama. Hillary did Obama a huge favor by toughening him up for his
debates with John McCain.
This year a new star debater was born: Nick Clegg in the United
Kingdom’s first-ever prime ministerial debates. He’s not quite at the
Clinton level, but especially in this first of the three British debates,
Clegg turned in a first-rate performance. Watch how fluent he is in
playing to the camera.
*** CLIP #12: NICK CLEGG IN UK PM DEBATES (1:12)
Note: Play the first 1:12 of the clip – note that there may be a short
ad at the beginning.
The latest trend in TV debates is for citizens to ask the
questions, as opposed to journalists. This started with the American
town hall debate in 1992, the one where Bush looked at his watch and
Clinton bonded with the audience. Now we have the You Tube format,
which debuted in the U.S. in 2008, and also that same year in the
party leaders’ debate in New Zealand. In this format, voters submit
their questions on video.
*** CLIP #13: NEW ZEALAND YOUTUBE DEBATE (1:30)
Note: Play about the first 1:30 of the clip.
Citizen videos add an element of unpredictability to an already
unpredictable situation, because the questions can come from anyone
– or anything. Two final examples, first from the United States in
2008 -- and second, from a presidential debate entitled “Yo Pregunto,”
held just last month in Colombia.
*** CLIP #14: YOUTUBE TALKING SNOWMAN (:35)
Note: Play the first :35 of the clip.
*** CLIP #15: “YO PREGUNTO” TALKING DOLL (:20)
Note: Play the full clip.
Although I sincerely hope that the future of campaign debates
does not depend on talking snowmen and dolls, these questions
remind us that candidates must be prepared for every contingency.
Fifty years of TV debates have taught us many lessons, but perhaps
the most important lesson is this: live television will always have a
mind of its own.