Our Bland Presidential Debates

Presidential debates should be held at great centers of learning, history, or architecture.

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Quick, who's ever heard of Lynn University? 

It's one of the chosen places for the presidential debates this month—in Boca Raton, Fla. It will be the venue of the third debate on Monday, October 22, and I can't tell you why. Tomorrow's venue at the University of Denver is acceptable. But in general the places where President Barack Obama will face Mitt Romney and Vice President Joseph Biden will meet Veep candidate Paul Ryan are distinguished only by their obscurity. 

They should be held at great centers of learning, or history, or architecture, or awesome natural beauty—jazzy places that energize the event, that sing of America. Wasn't Constitution Hall in Philadelphia available? What about Gettysburg or Mount Rushmore? Jackson Square in New Orleans or Faneuil Hall in Boston? An aircraft carrier in Norfolk? Ellis Island? Come on.  

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

The nonpartisan commission that plans presidential debates scrupulously strained to be above the fray, but they could not have made blander choices. Everybody loves Jim Lehrer, like your uncle Clarence. He's now retired from PBS NewsHour. But I've seen him too many times as a presidential debate moderator. Sorry, the torch should be passed down to younger journalists for this historic gig as a matter of fairness, Jim, and to engage younger viewers and voters. You've had your say and your day. Yet, on the other hand, another moderator in his 70s, Bob Schieffer of CBS News, is still working the angles in the capital, far from retired. He brings a freshness, seasoned with some wit, grace, and wisdom, to the table.

So one Washington wise man is an important component in setting the scene and tone. So is a place, like a stage set, that resonates as a piece of our national identity. Most important of all is the passion and belief the two debaters show listeners. I went back to the seven open air debates in 1858 between smooth Sen. Stephen Douglas and shrewd Abraham Lincoln for the Illinois Senate race. Lincoln actually lost, but won the moral victory and the presidency, only two years later.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Thousands of people showed up on the prairie countryside to listen to these two explain their bitterly divided views on slavery. Oh, they had a lot to talk about, especially the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision that had recently ruled that free or enslaved black people could never be considered citizens for any reason, thus snuffing out their humanity. 

In Springfield, Ill., Lincoln had just given his first famous speech, saying a house divided against itself cannot stand. Douglas worked that over and Lincoln was forced to defend and explain the metaphor, time after time, as it applied to free states and slave states. At this point, he was not an abolitionist, but believed in the innate equality and dignity of mankind. He personally detested slavery, our "peculiar institution," which he wanted to lock into place with no further expansion.    

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

As arranged between themselves, Lincoln and Douglas met to debate in Freeport, Alton, and Galesburg, among other small towns—anybody know where those places are on the map? Perhaps the joke is on me.  

Senator Douglas held Lincoln's hat on the Capitol porch as his political rival was sworn in as the 16th president on a March morning in 1861. In the time he had left, he wielded influence to help the president keep the Union strong. And when Douglas died early in the Civil War, Lincoln considered his death a calamity, a historian of the time noted. 

So debates can be a bonding experience, at least back in the day. Something tells me not on our watch. For we, too, live in a divided house.  

  • Read Peter Fenn: Will the Debates Matter?
  • Read Peter Roff: How the Media Will Cover Wednesday's Presidential Debate
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy