An Uncivil Tongue
Raw debate isn't a modern invention
by Jim Lehrer
Photograph by Dave Doody
Jim Lehrer, who has seen his share of political debates, argues that vigorous exchanges can be a good thing.
There has been much public whining about the shameful quality of debate in 2016 American politics. The complaints about perceived smears and abuses, lies and libels have been called "unbelievable," "unprecedented," "historic." Several pundits, it appears, have never seen it so bad, so mean, so personal, so nasty, so crummy.
The facts don't support that whine. There is nothing, for instance, that any current presidential wannabe has said about another that even comes close to the harsh attacks on contemporaries by beloved founders Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Adams. As noted by Ron Chernow and other historians, the terrible things peers and admirers called the iconic father of our country, George Washington, come close to being unrepeatable even in impolite company.
The Founders, those in Colonial Williamsburg as well as Philadelphia and other centers of political power, practiced debate when it all began and then embedded it permanently in the system of self-government they designed. Public give-and-take are at the terrible mouth — as well as the good heart — of what has made politics work in our often disunited United States of America.
I don't believe it's an overstatement to say that we simply wouldn't have made it this far as a functioning representative democracy without the vigorous political exchanges, sometimes accompanied by brutal verbal as well as the occasional physical assault.
In the beginning, the major public debates were either face-to-face between and among delegates to the House of Burgesses or the Continental Congress, for example, or in print on behalf of such newspaper owners and editors as Benjamin Franklin and their follower/reader surrogate maligners.
Mostly what's changed in the past 240 years or so are the additions of new venues and instruments for amplification of debate — telephones, public address systems, radio, television, movies, whistle-stops, bus tours, teleprompters, blogs, robo calls, the Internet, tweets, texts, etc. But the basic subjects are the same. War and peace, budgets and taxes, race and human rights, law and order, cheating and corruption, treaties and declarations are the American debate. They always have been and they always will be.
The airing of our differences over sweeping philosophies about the role of government — down to the minute details of how to fill a pothole on a street down the block — provides the energy of democracy.
Yes, sometimes that energy can be negative — even nasty. But, more often, it isn't. The prevalent type of debate within the world of American politics, past and present, is good-hearted and mostly full of healthy, clean exchanges.
I would consider the nationally televised presidential debates, as a prime — if not the prime example of that.
The first were those between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960. There have been 36 for president and vice president since. The fall of 2016 will most likely bring another four.
Those debates, viewed in full or part by virtually every eligible voter by Election Day, are vital to the process that ends with the selection of the people who run the country.
There they are — on live television — standing or sitting next to each other. One of these men or women is going to be the next President/Vice President of the United States. They are speaking to or about each other and their respective positions in a manner that is sometimes sharp, other times dull but always revealing. The rules of engagement are based on civility and fairness. They were set by the League of Women Voters initially and now by the Commission on Presidential Debates for the past 28 years. Those debates are serious and they matter. Everyone involved — including, most assuredly the candidates and the moderators — knows it and acts accordingly.
But the same also applies to most back-and-forths at a precinct caucus, a town hall meeting, a church basement, a state legislature, a 10-watt radio station and a Twitter exchange.
We Americans are debaters by nature, by heritage — and mostly — by need. Exchanging and disagreeing, sometimes even uncivilly, is what got us where we are and it's where we're still going.
Jim Lehrer, a journalist, correspondent and anchor of acclaimed news programming on PBS, has moderated 12 presidential debates. He is a recipient of Colonial Williamsburg's Churchill Bell in recognition of his commitment to citizenship education and public service.