Tomorrow may or may not be the first of the presidential debates between Obama and McCain. I’ll watch, although I find political debates really depressing, and not just because reality is a little bleak right now. I’m always frustrated at the level of the discourse. If a candidate goes where a president should be intellectually prepared to go, attempting to seriously discuss the ambiguities and challenges of complex issues like finance or health insurance systems, he’ll be totally shooting himself in his (obviously elitist) foot. People don’t want to hear serious, complex discussion. They want sound bites and short answers, as do media outlets (the better to repeat them ad nauseum throughout the day)!
No matter how well these two candidates comport themselves, this debate will be a far cry from the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, when the American public enjoyed much greater familiarity with, and pleasure in, rhetoric. Here’s Neil Postman’s rueful take on how presidential debates have changed over the last 150 years, from Amusing Ourselves to Death:
Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? Or five? Or three? Especially without pictures of any kind? . . . These audiences must have had an equally extraordinary capacity to comprehend length and complex sentences aurally. In Douglas’ Ottawa speech he included in his one-hour address three long, legally phrased resolutions of the Abolition platform. Lincoln, in his reply, read even longer passages from a published speech he had delivered on a previous occasion. For all of Lincoln’s celebrated economy of style, his sentence structure in the debates was intricate and subtle, as was Douglas’. In the second debate, in Freeport, Illinois, Lincoln rose to answer Douglas in the following words:
“It will readily occur to you that I cannot, in half an hour, notice all the things that so able a man as Judge Douglas can say in an hour and a half; and I hope, therefore, if there be anything that he has said upon which you would like to hear something from me, but which I omit to comment upon, you will bear in mind that it would be expecting an impossibility for me to cover his whole ground.”
It is hard to imagine the present occupant of the White House being capable of constructing such clauses in similar circumstances. And if he were, he would surely do so at the risk of burdening the comprehension or concentration of his audience. People of a television culture need “plain language” both aurally and visually, and will even go so far as to require it in some circumstances by law.
The kicker? Postman wrote this passage in 1985. It could hardly be any more relevant and timely if it were written today. . .or tomorrow.