September 22, 2004

: Rules to challenge history…

The Memorandum of Understanding (acquired from the Washington Post) between the Bush and Kerry campaigns regarding how the presidential debates will be conducted is a fascinating document. Within its 32 pages you can read a history of modern presidential debates and campaign tactics, and you can read in amusement as the planners attempt to mitigate all the moments that have made past campaigns “interesting.”

For example, one of Nixon’s many problems during his 1960 debate with Kennedy: The poor guy sweated like pimply-faced freshman asking the head cheerleader to the prom. On page 18 section 9 ix, we see that the two camps require the Commission on Presidential Debates to “maintain an appropriate temperature” on stage. Seem like a stretch? There’s more!

Section 5c: no use of charts or graphs. We won’t be pulling any Ross Perot nonsense.

In the same section we see that neither candidate may “reference or cite any specific individual sitting in a debate audience.” Remember the devastating use Al Gore made of a farmer in the audience of a Democratic debate in Iowa in 2000? He slam dunked Bill Bradley with that one. No more of that.

Section 5e: Candidates may not ask each other questions (although they may ask rhetorical questions). No more snotty questions from the opponent.

Section 5k: “Candidates shall not address each other with proposed pledges.” Do you remember Orrin Hatch’s electric acid kool-aid test from the New Hampshire primary in 2000–you know, his proposed bus tour with all the candidates? That was a great idea for citizens but not so hot for front runners (makes them look like average chumps).

Section 9a v: No camera cut-aways to the opponent while a candidate is speaking. We don’t want anyone in TV land catching a glimpse of someone checking his watch (re: Bush 1).

I’m surprised there are no rules about telling jokes at the opponent’s expense (re: Reagan vs. Mondale) or slam-dunk anti-comparisons (re: Bensen vs. Quayle).

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss the rhetorical constraints and what they suggest about the quality of discourse we’re likely to hear.

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