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ISSUE 118 VOL 6 PUBLISHED 10/22/2004

Substantial Debate

By Byron Vierk
Staff Writer


Friday, October 22, 2004

Since their humble beginnings in 1960, televised presidential debates have given voters a chance to see each candidate answer questions directly.

With candidates free of anyone whispering in their ear, and forced to respond candidly and directly to a moderator, the debates have become perhaps the most influential event in the race for the White House. In some cases, they have literally turned a race upside down.

The debates we have seen this year are no different, as evidenced by the renewed vigor of Kerrys campaign following his decisive win in the first televised debate.

As MSNBCs Chris Matthews stated, We havent seen this decisive of a victory in decades  almost four-to-one in favor of Kerry.

The first debate between President Bush and John Kerry may have made this years election a horse race again, but its far from the most memorable example of when a debate changed history.

Back in 1960, before Sen. John F. Kennedy debated Vice President Richard Nixon, most pundits were ready to write Kennedy off.

A Catholic with relatively little experience and a supposed lack of maturity due to his youth, Kennedy was never truly seen as a threat to Nixon, vice president in a very popular Eisenhower administration.

However, when America tuned in to watch the debates, they saw a sweaty and nervous Nixon up against a tan, fit and charming Kennedy.

That night of the first Kennedy-Nixon debate marked the beginning of the end of Nixons chances in 1960, and firmly established successful debates as crucial components to any presidential bid.

While Kerry hasnt enjoyed the massive leap in the polls that Kennedy gained following his trouncing of Nixon, he has done something much more important.

In three debates, Kerry has deconstructed the meticulously-created aura of invincibility which had surrounded the Bush campaign.

After the first debate, Bush found himself in the same place as Al Gore in 2000, ridiculed for his facial expressions of exasperation and chided for being on the defensive.

Do facial expressions and sighs add up to a bad president? No, but they do give a glimpse into the character and patience of the individual campaigning.

When Gore became exasperated with Bush in 2000, his sighs and smirks were seen as snobby and elitist.

Gore became the know-it-all prize pupil to Bushs well-meaning simple man.

Not surprisingly, Bush leapt ahead in the polls. His message, much like Gores, had remained virtually unchanged. Style triumphed over substance.

This years debates werent as combative as those in 2000 or even as concentrated on the issues as the 1996 debates between former President Bill Clinton and former Sen. Bob Dole.

These debates have, however, been immensely more revealing about the nature of the election ahead.

In the past years, partisan bickering has made many people who are uninterested in politics turn off entirely to the election process.

The debates allow the undecided voter to listen and look at both candidates and to read each man as both an individual and a statesman.

While Kerry has a very nuanced plan that has a lot of meat to it, Bushs straightforward and arguably simplistic plan has merits among his supporters.

The undecided voter hears both bits of substance, but the candidates styles of delivery and the personality must be finally and indelibly incorporated into the message.

Of course, we as Americans pride ourselves on our individuality. We, as

a nation, are as likely to vote for the candidate whom we admire personally as we are to elect the candidate with the superior political agenda.

The debates allow style and substance to come together, hopefully with one bolstering the other.

In 2000, Bushs superior style may have cost Gore the election. In 2004, Kerry has put himself back in the race by showing that substance can be stylish, too.


Staff writer Byron Vierk is a senior from Lincoln, Neb. He majors in history.


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