Saturday, September 27, 2008


By Jim Heffernan
September 27, 2008

In their brief analysis following Friday night’s McCain-Obama debate, ABC-TV’s assembled commentators laughed incredulously when anchor Charlie Gibson remarked that he had seen every presidential debate since they began.

It seemed incredible even to his colleagues that someone active in journalism today could have seen the Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, when the modern era of presidential candidate debating on television began. I’m not that active in journalism anymore, but I, too, remember the 1960 debate as though it were, well, 48 years ago.

Of course there was the Lincoln-Douglas debate some 100 years before that. Gibson missed that one, and so did I, but only by a century.

He didn’t say so, but it’s safe to assume Gibson watched the Kennedy-Nixon debate on television. I listened to it on radio.

I was out with a few of my hot-rodding buddies (I was 20, but would turn 21 soon enough to vote for Kennedy) on the night of the debate. We were hanging around a West Duluth gas station, kicking tires and debating Chevys vs. Fords (or maybe Oldsmobiles vs. Pontiacs), not tuned into the election at all. But somebody in the group remembered the debate and, in the drive of the closed filling station, turned it on a car radio, opened the car’s doors and we all gathered around and listened, cracking wise at every opportunity.

I remember the salient issue of that debate: Whether the United States should defend Quemoy and Matsu. Yes, Quemoy and Matsu, a couple of small Islands off the coast of “Red” China controlled by Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-shek had sequestered his nationalist followers after Mao’s communist hordes drove them from the mainland.

Back and forth Kennedy and Nixon went over Quemoy and Matsu (Nixon taking the hard line for defending them), and none of us assembled at that filling station had ever heard of them. Neither had most Americans, but the communist threat was a big political issue in the 1960s and eventually led to U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

Since I was listening on the radio, I didn’t see the demeanor of the two candidates, and only learned later that Nixon needed a shave and appeared to be sweating while Kennedy looked calm, cool and clean-shaven, As everyone knows, Nixon lost the election by a whisker. And the rest is history.

Fortunately (or maybe unfortunately) after the election and in the 48 years since, nobody has mentioned Quemoy and Matsu and Americans are as clueless today as they were then about where they are and what their significance might be, or was, or something.

I bring this up now because I suppose that, like ABC’s Charlie Gibson, by hook or crook I have seen just about every televised presidential debate, and I can state without equivocation that no candidate in need of a shave (since Nixon) has ever participated. There has been some sweating.

But I’ve learned over all these years that most of the big issues discussed on the debates don’t amount to a hill of beans (thank you, Rick Blaine) once the election has been held and a new president takes over the following January.

Who remembers what Al Gore and George W. Bush went back and forth about eight years ago, but everyone recalls an event a short time later that changed the course of our history. That would be Sept. 11, 2001.

Using “tactical” nuclear weapons (whatever they are) in Vietnam was a big issue when Barry Goldwater faced Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Goldwater’s advocacy for nuking the Viet Cong even scared many of his fellow Republicans.

Will anything “debated” between John McCain and Barack Obama this election season have an effect on future American policy or an impact on history? Perish the thought.


Madwoman of Preserve Path said...

I'm holding out for the Palin-Biden debate myself. And the SNL skit likely to follow.

Jim Heffernan said...

Hello. Glad you found my column on debates. I'm fairly new to blogging and am always surprised when someone I don't know stumbles on it.

Like you, I'm looking forward to tonight's Palin-Biden tilt. Actually feel anxiety about it...not necessarily about who "wins" (I'm for the Obama ticket), but I dread seeing her disintigrate -- if she does. She sure didn't at the GOP convention or to see Biden screw up like he did when he put FDR on TV in 1929.-- JH