3 Reasons Why 1976 Was the Greatest Year Ever for Presidential Debates


Does anyone else here remember 1976, the country's bicentennial that seemingly went by in a blur of tall ships, awesomely groovy animated videos, and a final "Bicentennial Minute" that clocked in well under 60 seconds (in line with the diminished expectations of the period).

1976 also marked the first time since Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy that presidential candidates would spar on live network television.

What could go wrong? Well just about everything. Which makes the Bicentennial Year a great one for presidential debates. Here are three high points:

1. If the Medium is the Message, It Just Threw Up.


In the first debate, held in Philadelphia on September 23, the audio went haywire a few seconds in. As a result, incumbent Gerald Ford and challenger Jimmy Carter stood silently and unmoving like idiots for almost 30 minutes, inhabiting their lecterns like the figurative ghosts they were. It might have been the last moment when American politicians were fully believable. A shortened look is above.

The failure gave rise to a great Marshall McLuhan appearance the next morning on The Today Show. The communications guru proclaimed to a non-comprehending Tom Brokaw, "The glorious moment was the rebellion of the medium against the bloody message. The medium finally rebelled against the most stupid arrangement ever made in the history of debating."

2. Oh Soviet Bondage, Up Yours!

In an October debate, Gerald Ford, famously unelected either as president or vice-president, made clear that the inmates were running the asylum. When asked about basic Cold War realities, he responded with the sort of comical non sequitur that would make Robin Williams a star on Mork and Mindy later in the decade. 

"The domination of Eastern Europe [by the Soviet Union]…just isn't true," said Ford. "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration." When the debate moderator gave him a chance to revise his statement, Ford did what any former college football center from the soft-helmet era would do. He doubled down on his original statement.

3. The Jerk Store Called. It's Running Out of Bob Dole.

In response to a question about the 1974 pardoning of Richard Nixon, Bob Dole immediately turned the conversation to his suspiciously off-the-cuff calculation of American dead in the 20th century's "Democrat wars." World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam were "all Democrat wars," said Dole during his debate with Walter Mondale. "I figured up the other day that if we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit."

As it happened, Dole's knowledge of population statistics was as off-base as his understanding of political zingers (Detroit boasted 1.6 million people in 1960, not 1976) and the Ford-Dole ticket went down to defeat at the polls.

I don't anticipate anything as remotely entertaining as 1976's theater of the absurd but thanks to the rise of the Internet and more, the presidential debates have been turned into an interactive forum rather than boring set-pieces they are designed as.

Now more than ever, we can talk back via Twitter, Facebook, and the simple act of turning away completely. I don't know if Marshall McLuhan would approve, but the medium is surely different than it used to be and that's got to count for something. And it's not just in terms of debates and the like. Over the past dozen years, the ability for campaigns, the media, or political parties to control the messaging of elections is getting tougher and tougher. That's a good thing and hopefully it points to a time when citizens will be able to route around politics and get on with living the lives that we want to. Read more in that vein here.

Programming note: Come back to Reason.com's Hit & Run blog for live-tweeting of tonight's debate from 9PM ET til it ends.