A recurring question for Trivial Pursuit at gatherings of the Chester A. Arthur Society, comprising Australian tragics of American politics, used to be this:
"What was the name of the cosmetic that Vice-President Richard Nixon used to disguise his 5 o'clock shadow while debating Senator John F. Kennedy on television in Chicago in September 1960?"
The answer is Lazy Shave, which a Nixon staffer picked up at a nearby drugstore. Kennedy had refused studio make-up because he had been campaigning in California and was well tanned. Nixon, on the other hand, having promised to campaign in all 50 states, was both fatigued and in pain from a knee injury. Notoriously, his sallow complexion was cursed with a 5 o'clock shadow which had been accentuated by Herblock's cartoons in The Washington Post. The Lazy Shave was the compromise, but it did not work under television lights. From that point in American politics, appearance mattered far more than performance.
Listening on the radio, Kennedy's running mate, Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas, thought Nixon won the debate on substance. But the television audience gave it to Kennedy.
As Edwin O'Connor prophesied in The Last Hurrah, television would come to dominate US elections, especially the race for the White House.
The 2020 US presidential debate schedule is now established by the non-partisan Commission on Presidential Debates. Chris Wallace of Fox News will moderate the first 90-minute debate on September 29 between President Donald Trump and former vice-president Joe Biden at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
October 15 witnesses a town hall debate in Miami, Florida, at Adrienne Arsht Center. Steve Scully is the political editor of C-SPAN and he will moderate.
Finally, Kristen Welker, an anchor at NBC, will be the final moderator at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee on October 22.
But the vice-presidential debate between Senator Kamala Harris (Democrat, California) and incumbent Vice-President Mike Pence will attract more than the usual interest on October 7 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Susan Paige of USA Today will occupy the moderator's chair, and as both debaters are potential future presidents looking to 2024, there will be considerably more scrutiny on this occasion than in earlier vice-presidential match ups.
These debates generate awesome coverage. In 2016, some 13 networks, including 2 Spanish language networks, carried the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Some 84 million Americans tuned in, and that does not count the numbers of people watching outside the home or on social media.
So this contest for the soul of America, between Trump and Biden, is going to begin seriously with the two men facing off in Cleveland.
Donald Trump eschews debate preparation, relying upon his instincts, which are both sharp and formidable, and his comfort zone in television studios. He can be expected to employ bluff and bluster in the debates, and to endeavour to ride roughshod verbally over his opponent.
Trump's focus will be on law and order, a strengthening American economy and a vaccine for COVID-19, which the President will argue will arrive just in time, like the cavalry in John Ford's classic western Stagecoach.
Foreign policy and economic policy will be interlocked and the focus of both will be China. Joe Biden will be painted as generally weak, but particularly weak on China, which has assumed villain status in Washington D.C. among both major parties.
For his part, Vice-President Biden will seek to be more presidential than partisan, judging by his campaign to date, although he will seek to hold the Trumpian feet to the fire on mismanagement of the pandemic and the dramatic collapse in the US economy. The pandemic is returning to centre stage, given Trump's own revelatory interviews in Bob Woodward's new book, Rage.
On the military, Biden will unquestionably be emotional, given the claims in The Atlantic of Trump's disparagement of American war dead and the service of Biden's son Beau. This election may be different, with military issues playing better for the Democrats. Climate change will be injected into the debate, but overall, the vice-president will seek to ensure that this election is a referendum on the Trump administration, especially attempts to dismantle Obamacare.
Trump will not be able to elbow Joe Biden aside as he did his opponents during the Republican primaries of 2016. Nor will he be able to seek to intimidate the former vice-president by hovering around on the stage, as he did with Secretary Clinton.
Biden is far too experienced, as he demonstrated in vice-presidential debates against Governor Sarah Palin in 2008 and Speaker Paul Ryan in 2012. On both occasions he won comfortably, whether it be by virtue of dismissing Paul Ryan's claims or refusing to follow Sarah Palin down every ideological crevice on offer. The Biden campaign tends to be disciplined; Trump far less so.
Famous presidential debates have produced great moments of theatre and clear campaign momentum.
President Ronald Reagan demolished former vice-president Walter Mondale in 1984 after his advanced age had been raised as an issue, declaring: "I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."
Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, running with Governor Michael Dukakis on the Democratic ticket in 1988, annihilated Republican senator Dan Quayle of Indiana, who had claimed as much governmental experience as Jack Kennedy with the rejoinder: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
The cameras miss nothing. Governor Ronald Reagan walked across the stage to shake hands with President Jimmy Carter and was applauded for his courtesy. President George H. W. Bush was caught glancing at his watch during his debate with Governor Bill Clinton and earned much criticism.
For diverse reasons, these debates matter.
- Stephen Loosley is a senior visiting fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.