11/14/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Four Ways to Civilize and Simplify Debates

No picket signs, no shouting crowds, no "spin alley," no corporate sponsorship, no bread, no circuses, and perhaps best of all, no live audience. Today's presidential debates have become unserious to the point of self-parody. They have strayed from the original, the first national presidential debate in 1960.

On Sept. 26, 1960, Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy arrived with no hoopla at the studios of WBBM-TV, the CBS affiliate in Chicago. The producer-director was Don Hewitt, later the guiding genius of "60 Minutes."

For the first time in U.S. history, presidential nominees of the two major parties faced each other in televised debate. More than 66 million Americans tuned in. The quiet atmosphere that evening didn't see that historic to witnesses.

"You don't always know when history is unfolding before you," Sander Vanocur, a panelist then with NBC News told me this week. "I didn't know how Nixon looked because I was there, in living color. I had no idea how he looked in black-and-white" (the way nearly every household saw the debate).

Across the hall, another giant of journalism sat at his typewriter, wearing headphones. Facing an early deadline for the first edition of The New York Times, Russell Baker did so to concentrate on what the candidates said. "I listened to the debate instead of watching it," he recalled, "Throughout, I thought Nixon was ahead on points. Afterwards, I saw Pierre Salinger and the Kennedy people smiling and slapping each on the back. Voters saw a different debate from the one I heard."

A week earlier, campaigning in North Carolina, Nixon had injured his knee, which became infected and hospitalized him. He had lost 10 pounds and a lot of sleep. Wearing a gray suit, he arrived at a gray studio, which his handlers had been trying to re-arrange and even repaint all day. That bad precedent leads to one firm rule for the Commission on Presidential Debates: Choose a place and a format, then stick to it.

According to Theodore H. White's Making of the President 1960, "furniture, desks, lecterns, background had been arranged and rearranged" at the behest of Nixon's television advisers. The gray backdrop? "Several times that day it was repainted -- but each time the gray tone dried light...Nixon, in his light suit, faded into a fuzzed outline." The reality could not be concealed: Nixon, through no fault of his own, looked ghastly. His radio-rich baritone was of little help. The lesson for future debates is: give the interior-decorator consultancy of each campaign ample advance information, then no more fiddling.

Moderators should not be potted plants. Jim Lehrer was ignored, Gwen Ifill was bulldozed, and I haven't seen Tom Brokaw treated so shabbily since he and I covered the Nixon White House. The long-term answer may be a return to a panel of reporters, which might make candidates more polite.

When two senators are on stage together, we realize that "senatorial courtesy" means rules are for others. The Senate side of the Capitol loves rambling unlimited debate, but in the House, a one-minute or five-minute rule is the norm. Shouldn't a president be clear and concise on issues? Candidates seem to ignore the signals of blinking lights, so let's install an emphatic alarm that sounds somewhere between a fart and a fire engine.

Unplug the mid-debate plebiscite carnival crawl. The cable networks should shut down the clutter of dials, lights, balloons, bells and whistles. Cacophony is not information. The evening is about the fate of the Republic, not "Dancing With the Stars."

Make third parties earn their way into a debate. On deciding whether or not to include a third-party candidate, don't consult public opinion polls. Any ego-tripping billionaire can buy attention. Some third parties have installed a primary system to work towards parity. They just need some voters. In 2008, more than 37 million Democrats voted for their favorite candidate. Almost 21 million Republicans did likewise. Successful parties start on the local and congressional level. That's what the Whigs and the Republicans did.

After 48 years, some verities remain. "My assignment that night in Chicago was to cover the debate and I made the same mistake Nixon did. I assumed it would be a debate" Baker says. It's not a debate, of course, but a joint appearance, where appearances count.
"I watch Obama when McCain is talking and see the same half- smile or quarter-smile of Kennedy's," Vanocur recalls. "It's respectful, but quizzical, slightly skeptical." The former NBC stalwart no longer philosophizes about politics. "I've formed a more profound conclusion," Vanocur says. "Presidential candidates in a television debate should never wear a gray suit."