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.


  1. #1 llewelly
    September 25, 2008

    I can’t stand to watch the debates – and furthermore, my ability to retain information from tv and movies is absolutely deplorable – it borders on useless – but every year from 1984 onward I have tracked down transcripts and read the transcripts. (I’ve also looked up transcripts of many debates prior to 1984.)
    They have a lot of advantages. For starters, you can read the transcripts as many times as you can bear to. With digital transcripts, you can search for particular words or phrases. You don’t need to worry about being unduly influenced by a candidate mopping his brow or having a ‘strange bulge’ between his shoulder blades. You can copy and paste relevant snippets of text to whatever forum you discuss them on. I could go on all day.

    Unfortunately – the banality, irrelevance, and frankly ahistorical assumptions the questions are grounded in, are much harder to miss when it’s in all in text.

  2. #2 John Ohab
    September 26, 2008

    In your blog entry, you comment on theoretical political debates within the context of male participants. Does this reflect a belief that women, in general, are not viable candidates or more specifically, in light of Sarah Palin’s recent inability to verbally articulate human thought, that there are no viable women candidates in this election?

  3. #3 Jessica Palmer
    September 26, 2008

    Actually, John, it reflects the fact that as in 1858, the two major-party presidential candidates are men. Sarah Palin is a vice-presidential candidate. As for watching her debate, I’m looking forward to it with morbid curiosity after seeing this.

  4. #4 Rhett Butler
    September 26, 2008

    Since I have become politically active I have watched the debates. While the rhetoric has certainly diminished in the last century, there can be no doubt that it is the best opportunity for intelligent Americans to see the candidates arguing for their political viewpoints.

    I have to admit though, even I am having a hard time suspending disbelief and ascribing this tradition with the dignity it used to command. This entire election season has descended into a badly produced reality television show. It seems the debates, one of the few strands of respectability left in the process, may be doomed as well.

  5. #5 John's Ohab
    September 26, 2008

    You said “political debates”. There is no getting around this gaff. Please promise me this link isn’t to more Sarah Palin interview “highlights”. It’s too painful.

  6. #6 Ian
    September 26, 2008

    Why would you want anyone to speak in the absurdly florid lingo of yesteryear? Lincoln takes five lines of text to say the equivalent of “I can’t address his 90-minute talk in the half-hour I have, but I’ll do the best I can.” Why is that somehow wonderful?

    Having said that, yes, they need to be more substantive and nuanced, but that’s not going to work until we educate our citizens to a level where they can cope with it.

  7. #7 Jessica Palmer
    September 26, 2008

    ian – actually it would be hilarious if the candidates were required to debate in the vernacular of 1858! But I suppose hilarity is less important than comprehensibility. Sigh. 🙂

    My point is really that to an 1858 audience, that wasn’t absurdly florid prose. It was complex, but audiences of the time enjoyed complexity in speech and appreciated it in their politicians. We don’t have to follow suit, but it would be nice if the American public could understand complex language, because sometimes complex concepts demand it.

    John, I actually thought about using “he or she” when I wrote the post. I decided it wasn’t necessary because I was focusing on presidential candidates and there hasn’t been a female major party candidate – about which I am hardly happy. Don’t you think that using the male pronoun actually emphasizes that issue? I mean, if I said “he or she”, wouldn’t that suggest I found the appearance of a female candidate in the presidential debates not only appropriate, but possible and likely? What I’ve seen recently has not encouraged me to think a female candidate for the presidency is likely in the near future, so why even bother pretending to be equal opportunity in discussing the race?

  8. #8 John O
    September 26, 2008

    Always two steps ahead!

  9. #9 michael
    September 26, 2008

    Recently I’ve been fantasizing about an America where we would have two presidential elections– one to elect the actual president and one to elect the actor who will play the president. That way we could pick someone that is comely and charismatic to be the face, and somebody that can actually do the job to be the brain. It seems our current election muddles the two, and nowhere is this more visible than in the debates.

  10. #10 John B
    September 26, 2008

    See George Orwell’s essay, Politics and the English Language, for another perspective on this.

  11. #11 mdvlist
    September 27, 2008

    I have to say, I had to get up and bake snickerdoodles during the debate last night, I got so squirmy under the relentless barrage of talking points. If they want to do something about obesity in this country, the politicians have to stop making us eat for comfort.

  12. #12 wunx~
    September 28, 2008

    The thing that frustrates me most about political debates is the length to which the contenders go to avoid actually answering the questions.

    Though these two are definitely striving for sound bites, at least neither parses his speech into three syllable chunks and both can pronounce nuclear – unlike our current president.

  13. #13 Sarah
    September 30, 2008

    Took me a while to get around to answering this, but I just wanted to remind folks that the 1800s speeches (not sure about debates) were read by the vast majority of their audience. With no radio and no television for distribution, speeches were printed in newspapers across the US, and the surviving version in the historical record is the printed version, not the version which was actually delivered. Saying that people must have had an “extraordinary capacity to comprehend length[y] and complex sentences aurally” ignores that most of the audience read the speech. Also, saying “the American public enjoyed much greater familiarity with, and pleasure in, rhetoric.” is only true if you insert the word “literate” in the sentence.

  14. #14 Jessica Palmer
    September 30, 2008

    Sarah, those are basically the same things my boyfriend said, and I think he’s rather smart, so I agree with you. 🙂 Still, I don’t think they torpedo Postman’s fundamental argument. It is easier to see where he is coming from if you read the entire book – quotes out of context are by their nature unsatisfactory and incomplete.

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