BROOKE GLADSTONE: TV didn't enter the candidate debate business until the famous – for Richard Nixon, devastating – debates between Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960. But that historic encounter did not inspire more such match-ups. The networks that had jointly sponsored the debates were discouraged by the process, whereby the rules were hashed out by the campaigns and then imposed on their TV hosts. Nor were the candidates particularly eager for their close-ups.
Alan Schroeder is the author of Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV. He says it took presidential contenders four full election cycles to get back on the small screen. ALAN SCHROEDER: If you think about the history here, in 1964 – it's interesting – before he was assassinated, JFK had pledged to debate again, and he and Barry Goldwater had agreed, in fact, to do the very thing that McCain's proposing, which is a series of town hall debates around the country.
But Lyndon Johnson was the candidate in 1964. He basically didn't want to do it. He was far enough ahead that he didn't have to. In 1968, you had Richard Nixon as well as in 1972, and Nixon had been so badly burned in the 1960 debates that he simply chose not to take part.
And it wasn't until 1976, when you had President Gerald Ford, the incumbent, trailing his opponent, Jimmy Carter, that Ford issued a challenge at that year's Republican Convention for there to be a resumption of presidential debates. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Looking at this historically, obviously town hall debates are a time-honored format for political discussion. But they used to be real. You know? [LAUGHS] People would come and ask questions and they wouldn't be filtered.
When they propose a town hall debate, is that what they really mean? ALAN SCHROEDER: Well, that's part of the problem here is there's ambiguity in that term "town hall debate." The very first town hall debate at the presidential debate level was in 1992, and it featured Clinton, the first George Bush and Ross Perot.
The moderator for that debate was Carole Simpson of ABC, and she had pretty much a free rein to call on any member of the audience that she wanted to and they had free rein to ask any question that they wanted to.
But as the years have gone on, the campaigns have built in additional protections over the years. For instance, in the last few cycles, the town hall questions had to be written down and submitted in advance.
In the 2004 debates between John Kerry and George W. Bush, Bush's people insisted that if someone in the audience asking a question diverged from what had been written down in advance, that the microphone would have to be cut. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow. ALAN SCHROEDER: So over the years, the campaigns have built in additional security measures for themselves that stand in the way of an open dialogue. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if the candidates don't trust the network news anchors, it doesn't sound like they really trust the ordinary citizen, either. ALAN SCHROEDER: In fact, I think if anything, the ordinary citizen is much more of a wild card than the journalists. You know, there's a great deal of preparation and rehearsal that goes into presidential debates, and if it's a journalist asking the questions, they can almost always identify in advance exactly what the topics will be.
But when you've got an audience of several hundred people who are coming from God knows where, asking [LAUGHS] God knows what, there's no way you can game that in advance. And so, you get asked some very strange things.
This year on the campaign trail, at one John McCain event, for instance, John McCain was asked by someone in the audience about an ugly name that he had allegedly called his wife in public. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yes, she was making a joke about his thinning hair? [OVERTALK] ALAN SCHROEDER: Yeah. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he used a four-letter word in reference to her that begins with “c”. ALAN SCHROEDER: That's exactly right. And someone in a town hall audience stood up and asked him about that. MARTY PARRISH: Is it true that you called your wife a [BLEEPING SOUND]? [CROWD HUBBUB] JOHN McCAIN: Now, now, you don't want to go there -- You know, that's the great thing about town hall meetings, sir, but we really don't -- there's, there’s people here who don't respect that kind of language, so onto the next questioner in the back. [AUDIENCE CLAPPING] ALAN SCHROEDER: In spite of all the restrictions, all the layers of security that are built in, you get these moments that reveal something about the candidate, the candidate may not want us to see. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alan, thank you very much. ALAN SCHROEDER: You're quite welcome. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alan Schroeder teaches in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University and is the author of Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]