[eDebate] Spirit of 1963 Op-ed - draft

Mitchell, Gordon Roger gordonm
Thu Jun 5 05:09:38 CDT 2008

Hi folks,

We are shopping a draft of the Op-ed pasted below for newspaper publication,
and welcome editorial suggestions for improvement as we navigate the
submission process.

By the way, here's a link to a PDF of the McCain letter on debates:


Gordon and Kelly

* * *

Will McCain?s Debate Proposal Ignite Spirit of 1963?

By Kelly Congdon and Gordon R. Mitchell

As debate scholars, we applaud the June 4th letter from John McCain to
Barack Obama proposing an ambitious series of town hall debates prior to the
Democratic National Convention. While debates are a normal part of the
presidential campaign scene, there are some striking features of the McCain

Timing alone is noteworthy - it is very early in the electoral cycle to be
talking about general election debates. While novel, the town hall series
idea is not unprecedented. McCain?s letter cites 1963, when Senator Barry
Goldwater and President John F. Kennedy "agreed to make presidential
campaign history by flying together from town to town and debating each
other face-to-face on the same stage." Sadly, an assassin?s bullet stopped
the debate series.

It is worthwhile to recover the debate spirit of 1963. As George Faras shows
in his compelling book, No Debate, the current presidential debate system is
broken and needs overhaul. The problem is that the authority in charge, the
Commission on Presidential Debates, is beholden to the political parties and
mainstream commercial television interests. This skewed situation where the
sly foxes of corporate and political power guard the deliberative henhouse
has a track record of producing dueling monologue formats, vapid exchanges,
and circumscribed citizen involvement. Indeed, the McCain letter decries the
"empty sound bites and media-filtered exchanges that dominate our

We could not agree more. While this form of sportified debate lends itself
to sensationalized media coverage and horse-race handicapping, it does
little to resupply the nation?s precious reservoir of creative public debate
energy. Luckily, this type of energy is a renewable resource that can be
re-stocked by public-driven approaches to debates in this upcoming
presidential election and beyond.

If nothing else, the McCain debate letter awakens us to the possibility.
Citizens need not settle for a scripted and stale form of presidential
debating. Thanks to this opening, voters and venue hosts are now empowered
to participate in the grand "debate about debate" - the discussions that
shape the character of specific public debate events.

What is the source of the McCain campaign?s new pro-debate drive? It may
reflect the rising prominence of John McCain?s communications director,
Brett O?Donnell. As an intercollegiate debate coach at Liberty University,
he evinced a strong commitment to broad participation with an admirable
focus on developing novice debate.

Early commentary on the McCain letter has focused on the remarkable way that
the letter wrests authority from the Commission on Presidential Debates. It
is our hope, now that the two campaigns are engaged in negotiations, that
this refreshing call for experimentation and flexibility in the formats and
procedures of the presidential debates does not give way to business as
usual. The Obama camp's early response to the McCain town hall proposal
seems promising in this regard. David Plouffe welcomed the debate concept
and constructively suggested a citizen-friendly, "less structured and
lengthier" format, one that "more closely resembles the historic debates
between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas."

The devilish details of campaign debates should not be decided in backrooms
stuffed with the mavens of Madison and Pennsylvania avenues. Regardless of
political persuasion, we should join together to see the McCain campaign?s
fresh pro-debate momentum gain concrete expression in new formats, venues
and voices added into the presidential election process.

* * *

Kelly Congdon is assistant director of debate at the University of Richmond;
Gordon R. Mitchell is associate professor and director of the William Pitt
Debating Union at the University of Pittsburgh

* * *

Gordon R. Mitchell
Associate Professor of Communication
Director, William Pitt Debating Union
Deputy Director, Ridgway Center for Security Studies
University of Pittsburgh
CL 1117, 4200 Fifth Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
Phone: (412) 624-8531
Fax: (412) 624-1878

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