The last of the Lincoln-Douglas debates took place 150 years ago today in the politically volatile Mississippi River town of Alton, Illinois.
As Stephen Douglas, the former Illinois Supreme Court Justice who was the incumbent senator, took the stage, a prominent Illinois Democrat, Dr. Thomas Hope, attempted to ask the candidate a question.
The exchange followed this course:
DR. HOPE: Judge, before you commence speaking, allow me to ask you a question.
SENATOR DOUGLAS: If you will not occupy too much of my time.
DR. HOPE: Only an instant.
SENATOR DOUGLAS: What is your question?
DR. HOPE: Do you believe that the Territorial legislatures ought to pass laws to protect slavery in the territories?
SENATOR DOUGLAS: You will get an answer in the course of my remarks.
The crowd applauded, and that was the end of any attempt to “moderate” the debate between Douglas and his Republican challenger, Abraham Lincoln. Ninety-nine and nine-tenths of what was said in Alton, as in the other cities on the Illinois debate trail of 1858, was said by Lincoln or Douglas.
Modern debates are, of course, as fully defined by their media moderators as by the candidates. During the primary season, there were several debates where a moderator–particularly CNN’s Wolf Blitzer–did more talking than most of the candidates.
Moderators have not been quite so verbose this fall, as the Commission on Presidential Debates puts its imprint on the process. The commission, a corruption of democracy run by former Democratic and Republican party chairs, so carefully manages formats and rules that those allowed to sit in the moderator’s chair know full well that they must conform.
And they do, miserably.
To be sure, candidates Barack Obama and John McCain are somewhat at fault for the desultory nature of the debates so far. Obama is cool to the point of being frigid, hyper-cautious in his responses and so calculating that even when he delivers a zinger it sounds too rehearsed. McCain is too hot, so desperate to make a connection that he bobs about like a demented troll and steps on his own best lines.
Theoretically, the performances of the candidates should have been improved by prodding from able moderators.
Not this year.
The first presidential debate faltered as Jim Lehrer tried without success to get Obama and McCain to engage in a serious discussion of the financial meltdown that everyone else in the country was talking about.