Not so many presidential elections ago, televised debates were about the only chance Americans had to see their candidates answer questions in a live and relatively candid forum. It was one of few opportunities to see a candidate think on his feet and respond to questions.
But the election of 1992 definitely is the exception to that rule.
This year, candidates are on television every time we turn around, and not just in paid advertisements. If it's not the Larry King show, it's Donahue. Bill Clinton and Ross Perot have become virtual regulars on the morning news shows. Is this any way to run a national campaign?
One advantage is that it does away with the 30-second soundbite mentality. In recent campaigns, viewers seldom saw more than a snippet of a campaign appearance as part of the evening news. Now they get candidates live 30 or 60 minutes at a time perhaps more than viewers want.
Over a period of a week and a day, starting tonight, Americans will be bombarded with four nights of presidential and vice-presidential debates. One television commentator noted recently that voters are likely to watch the debates for much the same reason spectators attend an auto race in hopes of seeing someone crash. History has shown that political debates rarely make a winner, but they surely can ensure a loser.
The debates, perhaps, don't carry as much weight as they used to. They certainly aren't the only chance for candidates to look presidential on television. That may be a good trend if it ensures voters will have more information on which to base their election judgments. On the other hand, it gives increasing importance to a candidate's ability to look good and talk well in front of a television camera.
The campaign of 1992 will be a strong test of how television affects presidential politics. It's a genie that certainly can't be put back in the bottle. The American public will just have to learn to live with it.