Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Hey Newt, The Lincoln-Douglass Debates Weren't That Great

The point may be moot since Romney seems to be surging in the GOP primary race, but Harold Holzer wants Newt Gingrich to know that the famous Lincoln-Douglass debates would not work very well with a 21st century audience.  IF (and that is a big "if") Newt gets a chance to debate Barack Obama, he may want to reconsider the Lincoln-Douglass format.  Holzer writes:

These lengthy rhetorical bouts tested the endurance of the audiences and the candidates. Rather than inspiring memorable words, they proved for the most part an embarrassment. The encounters were brutally sarcastic, featuring highly personal attacks rather than elevated discourse. And while they were the first major political forums transcribed by stenographers, the debates were not even accurately published. The texts we know today were massaged by partisan editors eager to make their candidate sound less garbled. Newspapers of the era were openly connected to major parties — imagine Fox or MSNBC editing debate tapes before broadcast.

Still, no friendly editing could disguise the debaters’ shortcomings, including their open prejudice. Both men used the N-word — a term that, even then, shocked some. Douglas, who voiced horror at the sight of African American leader Frederick Douglass riding around town in a carriage driven by a white man, maintained that American democracy was created only “for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever.” While Lincoln insisted that the Declaration of Independence applied to all, he also descended into bigotry, acknowledging the “physical difference” between whites and blacks. In the fourth debate, he went further.

“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races,” he declared in Charleston, Ill., to robust cheers, “nor ever have been in favor of making voters of the negroes, or jurors, or qualifying them to hold office, or having them to marry with white people.” It was not the future emancipator’s finest hour.

To understand Lincoln-Douglas, we must remember a time when politics focused the frenzy that is today captured by the Super Bowl and “American Idol.” With little to entertain them outside church and county fairs, Americans flocked by the thousands to political events. Spectators stood for hours, toted banners, hocked wares, fired cannons, downed hard drink and raucously interrupted speakers with hurrahs and harassment — there was no Brian Williams-like proscription against audience response.

It was not uncommon for fistfights to break out in the farthest reaches of these large crowds, where the unamplified voices of the debaters seldom reached. During one debate, a Republican smeared excrement on Douglas’s carriage. Such diversions helped audiences endure outdoor marathons at which the opening speaker held forth for an hour, the responder took 90 minutes, and the first debater topped off with a half-hour rejoinder — unthinkable in today’s sound-bite culture....

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