Throughout history, there have been countless high-profile debates that exemplify the innovation and mastery of discourse rhetoric. These iconic volleys encapsulate some of the most significant issues and conflicts in history, portraying a variety of views and interpretations that are thought-provoking and, at times, harrowing in their delivery.
Here is a summary of one such meeting, a presidential debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
The 1960 opening debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon instantly became a relevant moment in debate history, as it was the first political debate of its kind to be broadcasted on national television. However, despite this debate’s significance, the Kennedy/Nixon debates would be the last of their kind for another 16 years, following FCC guidelines that deemed presidential debates to be “impractical because television stations were required to give equal time to all presidential candidates, not just those from the major parties.”
This approach was changed in 1975 after the FCC “ruled that live debates without sponsorship by a broadcaster were legitimate news events and could be carried by television stations without giving equal time to minor candidates.” Thus, televised presidential debates were solidified as standard practice henceforth.
The first debate to take place following the FCC’s change of methodology was a showdown between republican president Gerald Ford and his democratic challenger Jimmy Carter, the first in an intense election cycle that followed Nixon’s Watergate scandal. Ford and Carter debated several major political topics of the time, including the Soviet Union and its presence in Eastern Europe, but the debate was mired and ultimately defined by a series of awkward technical issues unprecedented in televised debate.
The problems began when, as Carter was giving an answer pertaining to “the post-Watergate decline in trust in the American government,” both candidates’ microphones suddenly shut off. This unexpected setback resulted in nearly 27 minutes of silence as both candidates stood awaiting their audio to be restored. This moment was particularly pressing, as both candidates were attempting to avoid the type of visible nervousness and discomfort exhibited by Nixon during the 1960 debate (which essentially led to his election loss).
Carter would go on to win the presidency in a narrow victory, a rare instance stemming from the southern United States, a “republican stronghold” during most of the country’s modern history.
Though the Carter/Ford debate was fairly cumbersome as a result of its technical difficulties, it provided a unique level of tension thanks to its captivating blend of the candidates’ almost paranoid self-awareness and the unpredictable environment in which they were debating. If anything, the debate helped to shape future broadcast debate protocol and still stands as a testament to both adaptability and calmness as standard debate necessities.