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Newton N. Minow and Craig L. LaMay. Inside the Presidential debates.Newton N. Minow and Craig L. LaMay.
Inside the Presidential debates: Their improbable past and promising future.
Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2008.
cloth, 219 p., ISBN 978 1 22653 041 3, $US22.50.
University of Chicago Press:



In the most important U.S. Presidential election in decades, Inside the Presidential debates provides remarkable insight into one of the most important events in the election — the debates. This book provides details from literally the inventor of the debates, Newt Minow, and describes his long involvement in their evolution and maturation over nearly five decades. It is richly detailed, well written, and full of surprises.

The first debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon has reached almost mythological stature. Why? CBS president Frank Stanton recalled:

“‘Kennedy was bronzed beautifully, wearing a navy suit and a blue shirt. ... Nixon looked liked death because he had been in the hospital. ... His color was terrible; his beard was not good and he didn’t want any makeup. I felt sorry for him.’” (p. 28)

Indeed, the “telegenic Kennedy carried the contest”, and eventually the election. So the debates became a part of the media landscape. Well, not exactly. In chapter 2, all of the hardwork to create a legal and political environment for the debates was undone by a decision by the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in 1962, none other than Newt Minow.

“In retrospect, there is no decision I made in public life that I regret more.” (p. 41)

It was not until the 1976 Presidential elections that the debates returned to television, with President Gerald Ford and challenger Jimmy Carter. Additionally, there were Vice–Presidential debates between Senators Walter Mondale and Bob Dole. Since then, these monumental events truly have become part of the American media landscape.

The last chapter provides some commonsensical suggestions on how to improve the debates; certainly any witness to the most recent rounds will agree that the format needs new ideas! Among their many excellent suggestions, the authors argue for spontaneity, rather than the usual canned rhetoric. What a concept! Anyone watching the most recent debates will recognize patterns of phrases and arguments by both candidates, the same content repeatedly used over months of campaigning. Even when asked good questions from a live audience (or via e–mail), both candidates avoided spontaneity, opting for tried and tired statements. No wonder the candidates sounded robotic.

This book should be required reading for anyone with an interest in politics and media. It is simply fascinating. — Edward J. Valauskas. End of article

Copyright © 2008, First Monday

Book review of Newton N. Minow and Craig L. LaMay’s Inside the Presidential debates: Their improbable past and promising future
by Edward J. Valauskas.
First Monday, Volume 13 Number 10 - 6 October 2008

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