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Televised debates are critical

Americans, by the many tens of millions, gathered around a national campfire flickering in our living rooms and watched the presidential debates. Particularly here in the states of the Northern Rockies, where most of us have been denied so much as a live glimpse of either of the two candidates, we were eager to watch the debates and see John Kerry and George Bush out there alone and on their own. As a respite against the growing anger and nastiness, on all sides, the debates brought Americans together, not in agreement about the issues or the candidates, but as a community; interested, concerned and understanding the imperative of watching the candidates live and in the raw, without the protective trappings of spinners and surrogates.

Since the first nationally televised presidential debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon 44 years ago, we have learned that television is the nation’s keyhole. Through its surprisingly clear focus, we have occasionally separated the real McCoy from the second-rater. During that first Kennedy-Nixon debate, Americans saw the intelligent, graceful JFK against the enigmatic Nixon, wiping the perspiration from his upper lip. Twenty years later, the keyhole of television brought into focus the handsome, good-humored Ronald Reagan against the good-natured, but out-classed, Walter Mondale.

The television camera is revealing: it exposes the pretender, the insincere, while illuminating the candid and genuine. The eye of the camera is particularly menacing to those politicians, those elected officials, who have been so insulated and protected by the trappings of their office that we literally do not know them.

This year’s three presidential debates were historic. Despite the critics, none of our almost half century of debates have been about high school debating skills, but rather they reflect the candidates’ ability and temperament. This year’s debates told us something about whether George W. Bush and John Kerry really know themselves. In these three debates, television’s keyhole allowed us to determine the difference between genuine commitment and pure stubbornness. We got a good enough look to compare openness and good humor against peevishness and anger. We could decide whether the candidates were graceful or simply haughty; a leader or a pretender.

The debates tested the candidates’ grasp of the always important complexities of critical policies and measured their ability to think on their feet. Our president must be master of both.

During the four-and-a-half hours of this year’s debates, we Americans gathered to get our first really good look at the candidates, alone and without the protection of note cards, teleprompters, rope lines, and hand-picked audiences. In our polarized, political society most minds were not changed by the debates. But perhaps it was more important for the still persuadable voters to decide which of the two candidates is best equipped by knowledge, wits, intelligence and composure to lead this country through its most pervasive crises since the Great Depression and World War II. Both here at home and around the world, our country faces clear dangers and historic opportunities. The debates between John Kerry and George W. Bush are the most critical in the 44 years since Americans took our first look though that revealing television keyhole.

Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West.

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Rep. Pat Williams Rep. Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at the University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West and is Northern Director of Western Progress.

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Politics, debate, Presidential

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