THE 1960 presidential campaign between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon was the first in which the candidates debated each other and the last in which more than 60 percent of eligible Americans bothered to vote.
There's no evidence that the "debates" now standard in presidential campaigns have caused the decline in voter participation. But these glitzy television confrontations have done something almost as harmful; they've converted the choice of a president into a Hollywood high-noon shootout.
Now the Senate, with little debate and less consideration, has voted to bribe future Democratic and Republican presidential nominees into four debates during their fall campaigns; they'll lose their federal financing if they refuse. That would be a high price to pay -- $46.5 million apiece in 1988 to George Bush and Michael Dukakis.
Sen. Robert Graham, D-Fla., who sponsored the idea, argued that debates would discourage negative campaign tactics. Tell that to Dukakis, who debated Bush twice, with no diminution whatever in the number of paint-peeling Willie Horton, Boston Harbor and Pledge of Allegiance TV spots he and the Democrats had to endure.
The goo-goo reason more often given for pious support of these duels on the tube is that they "inform the American people." Baloney. Even a casual review of previous debates will show that these high-stakes showdowns are gushing fountains of misinformation, disinformation, posturing, prevarication and puerility. The winner gets the White House, the Secret Service and Air Force One; the loser gets a line in the World Almanac.
The most famous presidential debate -- the first Kennedy-Nixon bout in 1960 -- turned more nearly on the appearance and manner of the candidates than on any of their unmemorable remarks. The second Reagan-Mondale round in 1984 went to the elderly Reagan by consensus, owing to his jape about Mondale's comparative youth. This is informing the public?
In fact, there were many more reasons for the Senate to leave the debate issue alone than to impose debates on the public. For one thing, practically to force candidates (even sitting presidents, except for the current incumbent) to debate an opponent is an infringement on their free-speech rights. That one might choose, instead, to lose federal financing for his or her campaign is hardly any choice at all.
The Senate bill also would impose an undesirable limit on political strategy. It's clear, in retrospect, that Vice President Nixon made a mistake when he let the lesser-known Senator Kennedy share a television stage and the spotlight in 1960.
Graham would require, practically speaking, any better-known candidate to make that mistake in the future. Under present custom, of course, any candidate who refuses to debate risks the anger of the public. Is that a lesser or greater risk than debating? Making such judgments is what candidates are supposed to do.
Televised debates, moreover, can and do decide presidential elections -- less because they inform the public than because of a winner's personal appearance or appealing manner or glib response, or a loser's fluff (President Ford's unimportant mistake, in 1976, about Poland). Popular banalities and empty promises -- like a sweating face, or a hesitant response -- all receive undue prominence in the television forum, and may carry too much weight on Election Day.
Yet, a president's duties never require him to debate anyone on television, before an audience of millions, where the tiniest error or defect -- like Richard Nixon's oversized shirt collar in 1960 -- will be magnified into cause for defeat.
All this might be sufferable if televised debates really did inform the public significantly. But what is most vividly remembered from the 1988 Bush-Dukakis exchanges? Dukakis' failure to show anger over a reporter's question about a hypothetical assault on Mrs. Dukakis. From Reagan and President Carter in 1980, it was Reagan's irreverent, "There you go again."
From 1960 until 1976, the nation got along quite well without presidential debates; and before 1960, from George Washington through Dwight Eisenhower, the voters needed no debates to help them choose. Nor do they now, even with television to carry the hype to every hearth and homestead.