SURVEYING the present scene, how I miss the good old days...


October 05, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

SURVEYING the present scene, how I miss the good old days, when politicians debated and newspapers pulled no punches.

I'll never forget the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. In 1858. The former was the Democratic senator from the state, running for re-election against the latter, a Republican lawyer.

They debated seven times, once in each congressional district. Typical was the first in Ottawa. Some 12,000 people stood under a broiling August sun for three hours to listen to the debaters go at it.

This was before television. The big medium then was newspapers. Lincoln was supported by the Chicago Tribune. Douglas was supported by the Chicago Times.

Here's what passed for objectivity in those glorious days: On the eve of the first debate the Tribune reported on Page 1, "The gallant Lincoln will enter the lists at Ottawa today."

The big issue of the campaign was slavery. Douglas supported it, specifically the Supreme Court's pro-slavery Dred Scott decision of 1857. The Tribune account of the first debate ran under this headline:

Dred Scott Champion Pulverized

The Times headline over a story by its reporter covering the same event was:

Lincoln Breaks Down --

Douglas Skins the Living Dog

Modern political reporting was born in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. For the first time, in that dawn of shorthand, an important news story was covered by a stenographer. The Tribune hired Robert A. Hitt, a court reporter, to follow the debaters.

His presence was as important at the debates as was that of Lincoln and Douglas. Think of him as the Larry King of his day.

At the debaters' second encounter in Freeport, as Lincoln rose to speak, William Bross, an editor of the Tribune on the scene, shouted, "Hold on, Lincoln, you can't speak yet! Hitt isn't here, and there is no use your speaking unless the Tribune has a report!"

Lincoln said, "Hitt ain't here? Where is he?"

Bross called out loudly, "If Hitt is in this crowd he will please come forward! Is Hitt in the crowd? If he is, tell him Mr. Bross of the Chicago Tribune wants him to come here on the stand and make a verbatim report for the only paper in the Northwest that has enterprise enough to publish speeches in the full!" (God, I love journalism!)

Hitt replied from the back of the crowd that he was there but couldn't get through the masses. So he was lifted overhead and passed hand to ahnd to the platform.


Lincoln won the debates. He got 125,340 votes to Douglas' 120,609. But the state legislature chose senators in those days. It disregarded the popular will and by a 54-41 vote reelected Douglas.

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