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The Kennedy-Nixon Debates: A Legacy Under Siege

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Exactly 50 years ago, on September 26, 1960, John F. Kennedy met Richard Nixon in a Chicago television studio for the nation's first presidential debate. The powerful aura of that event has infiltrated America's political consciousness, its legend resonating across the decades.

According to the myth, Kennedy catapulted directly from TV screen to White House by looking debonair and not breaking out into flop-sweat. The reality, of course, is far more nuanced, and the true legacy of Kennedy-Nixon transcends cosmetics. What gets forgotten is that a valuable new institution was established that night in Chicago. America's first presidential debates set a precedent of public scrutiny that continues to hold sway, not just here but around the world. Voters have come to regard debates as job interviews, with we the people deciding who gets hired. Imperfect as they may be, debates constitute one of the few campaign rituals that belong not primarily to political professionals, but to the electorate.

So what are we to make of the increasing numbers of office-seekers who refuse to meet their opponents face to face on live television? According to the Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel, nearly a third of this year's Senate candidates and nearly a quarter of gubernatorial contenders have either repudiated debates or balked at taking part. If we accept the analogy of the job interview, these non-debaters are equivalent to applicants who insist upon being hired without first talking to the boss. What they are demanding, essentially, is that voters take them on blind faith.

In this strangest of campaign seasons, alarming numbers of candidates are thumbing their noses not just at debates, but at any form of public appearance that cannot be foreordained. This tradition stretches back to Richard Nixon in 1968, when Roger Ailes staged the softball infomercials so memorably described by Joe McGinnis in The Selling of the President. And it continues today through Sean Hannity's sloppy-kiss interviews with politicians seeking an ideological safe harbor on Fox News. Such appearances are the opposite of debates, more akin to Cuban state television than the democratic dialogue that ensues when candidates must defend their positions side by side.

Fifty years ago Kennedy and Nixon handed the American electorate an enormous gift. By appearing together in a contest of ideas, they established a new mechanism for voters to comparison-shop before they head to the polls. The only question relevant to any candidate who refuses to debate his or her opponents: What have you got to hide?