Newt Minow on the Presidential Debates
Hi everybody I'm John Donvan and this is intelligence squared US part of our discourse disruptor series and what we're going to be focusing on. Our the coming presidential debates they are coming sort of starting September twenty-ninth, the first of three. And of course, because everything's different this year, the debates are going to feel different almost certainly going to be. In some fashion remote, maybe the debaters, the candidates won't even be in the same place. There's only going to be one moderator. We're not gonNA live audience because you can't have that many people in one space in this dangerous time. Also what we have going on as a conversation simultaneously with which is focused on, maybe we shouldn't have debates maybe it's time to wrap up that whole institution and go back to a time of no debates. And when I say go back did you know that for most of American history this institution that we know is the debates did not exist that for most of our history, there were no debates and did you know that once we started having debates that in the first series, there was a remote debate the candidates were not in the same place and there was no live audience. And there was only one moderator. So maybe things are circling back. There's a lot of history here and we are interested in that because. At intelligence squared, we are very interested in history and we are also very very interested in debates. So that's what we want to focus on and we want to focus. In this case of discourse disrupters with an excellent source of information about the past and the present and potentially the future, and that is a gentleman named Newton Minot and Newton Minnow is an old friend of intelligence squared us and he's also known as the father of American presidential debates and we'll talk a little bit about why that is. But first, let's bring Newt Minnow into the conversation newt. Thank you so much for for joining us. It's really a pleasure to be back in communication with you. John I. LOOK FORWARD TO I. Admire your work or the intelligence squared very very much. Well, thank you. Can I ask before we start everything else I find it interesting that for folks who don't know you have lived through some very, very disruptive times and this one in your nineties a comes at the after a long series of other adventures. I mean, you have lived through I, think twenty three presidential elections. At this point, you have seen twelve cycles of the debates that we're GONNA be talking about. You lived through the major disruption called World War to. Use served overseas you went into politics You're an aide to ally Stevenson who ran for president does the Democratic nominee twice in the nineteen fifties. So you saw two elections then you joined John Kennedy's administration and you saw the trauma of his assassination and then you were very close friends with Robert Kennedy and you saw his assassination and lived through that and and now this. Just just to take a moment is, is this disruption different in dramatically in kind from all of the others you've seen so far? Well, I lived through all that, but then I had another. Exposure to politics with Obama, the because Michelle worked for our firm and and Barack came to be a summer associate and they fell in love and so we got. So we had another round politics with with with the OBAMAS. About that but all throughout, I would say the last fifty years of this you have been intersecting with this institution that we call the presidential debates take us back to nineteen, fifty, nine, nineteen, sixty, where as an aide to at least Stevenson. You actually were involved in the idea of pushing forward the idea that there there. He did not get to take part in that kind of debate but was interested in enemies interested because you are suggesting it. You have a very strong faith in the idea of technology. To be a force for good and for communication and you saw television as this, you're right as this big thing happening in the sixties. Well, it actually was in the fifties in when. In in the fifty six. Presidential, election. The incumbent President President Eisenhower. Having a heart attack. And there was a big question whether he would be able to run again. And I suggested to adly that instead of the candidates. Rushing. All over the country and speaking crowds that that. Now, we have television which reached every home. And that instead of traditional debate that. There'd be a series of joint appearances or debates between the presidential candidates. As they considered that his advisors thought it was a gimmick and it was he never suggested it. The Federal Communications Act when it was originally passed during the new deal. Required equal time for political candidates. The law said section three fifteen FA broadcaster gives or sells time to one candidate. At must give ourselves time to the opponent on the same basis. As a result that was interpreted by the Federal Communications Commission to mean any use of the air by a candidate including being in a news program. So the broadcasters were pressing to get news programs exempt. From the equal time requirement and they finally succeeded in the late fifties. But debates were not regarded as a news program.