Historian Douglas Brinkley details role of presidential debates through history during Elon lecture

Brinkley, the Katherine Tsanoff Brown Chair in Humanities and professor of history at Rice University, the CNN presidential historian and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, delivered the guest lecture for the Elon community on the same night as the first debate in the 2020 presidential election.

Shortly before Donald Trump and Joe Biden squared off in their first debate on Tuesday night, noted historian Douglas Brinkley detailed the role these face-to-face wars of words have played through history during an online guest lecture for the Elon University Community.

During the Sept. 29 lecture, Brinkley pointed to the blunders and the winning performances Americans have seen since the first presidential debate aired in 1960. He offered a look at how candidates have both capitalized on these much-viewed events, and how they can factor into the decisions that voters make come Election Day.

“What are we looking for in these debates besides advertisers making money by having 80 to 100 million people watching them,” Brinkley asked Tuesday. “It’s about Biden and Trump trying to influence swing voters.”

Brinkley lamented that unfortunately, the debates have shifted to a point where they are focused less on engaging over policy differences and more upon “people not being bored.” That might not make for good television, but it’s beneficial to democracy, he said. His comments seemed prescient, given the contentious debate that took place between Trump and Biden a little more than an hour after his lecture was presented.

“Unfortunately, we’ve developed a democracy at this juncture where the great cardinal sin is being bored or being boring, and the problem is true policymaking can be made up of legal language, dull process, bipartisanship, civility, finding common ground,” Brinkley said. “And that doesn’t play as an action movie. That doesn’t play as a reality TV show. It stands as a monument to sanity and decency, but we’re int he age where people are growing up with attention spans that are so short, they want to see furniture move and things blow up every 30 seconds.”

Brinkley’s lecture is the latest event on Elon’s Cultural Calendar this fall that has brought a selection of online discussions with thought leaders, musical performances and other events, with many of the events adapted to adhere to health and safety guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brinkely, the Katherine Tsanoff Brown Chair in Humanities and professor of history at Rice University, the CNN presidential historian and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, has established himself as a leading historian who is able to draw upon historical lessons to apply them to the modern political and social environment. His most recent book, “American Moonshot: John F. Kennedy and the Great Space Race,” was a New York Times bestseller. His 2012 book “Cronkite,” a biography of renowned news anchor Walter Cronkite, won the Sperber Prize while his 2007 book “The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast” received the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.

On Tuesday night, Brinkley walked viewers forward from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the present day, noting the shifts in how presidents have viewed the role of the government in the lives of citizens. He noted that FDR responded to the Great Depression by expanding the role of government with the addition of programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, an expansive public works effort that among other projects constructed the Blue Ridge Parkway through North Carolina, the Works Progress Administration and the Tennesse Valley Authority. Those efforts expanded employment during the Depression while creating long-lasting public works and artistic projects people are still benefitting from today.

“FDR said I think that the federal government has to be the friend to people that are in need, that are in want, that are suffering,” Brinkley said.

The view that the government is your friend would continue with Harry Truman when became president, and was not specific to party, Brinkley noted, as Republican Dwight Eisenhower took much the same approach during his two terms in office beginning in 1953. “Eisenhower does the interststate highway system — the largest public works project in world history,” Brinkley said. “You don’t have to go to China and stand by the Great Wall. You can simply take a photo of yourself by a ramp on I-10.”

With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the view of government would shift, Brinkley explained. “We lived in the long shadow of FDR from 1933 until 1980, and from 1980 until Donald Trump, we’ve lived in the shadow of Ronald Reagan,” Brinkley said. “The shadow was that there is too much government, don’t trust the government, conspiracy theories about the government.”

During his two terms, Democrat Bill Clinton was much more of a centrist, taking proposals from Republicans on Capitol Hill and presenting them as his own, Brinkley said. Another Democrat, Barack Obama, attempted to be more progressive, but after “putting it all on one thing – the Affordable Care Act,” he spent much of his time trying to protect previous expansions of government such as Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, Brinkley said. “It became clear that he had to eat up a lot of his presidency on becoming a ‘firewall president,’ meaning protecting progressive heirlooms,” he said.

Brinkley said that as president, Trump has swung the pendulum even further right than past administrations to the point it has taken on a much more authoritarian bent. If Trump is re-elected, he could be seen as a true revolutionary figure in presidential politics but if he’s not, many will likely view his term in office as a fluke,  he said.

Turning to the role of the debates in past and the current presidential contests, Brinkley offered the reminder that they are a relatively modern addition to presidential politics, with the first occurring in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. They would not occur again until the 1976 presidential race when Gerald Ford, the incumbent, faced Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter. Many contend that Ford’s debate performance, in which he falsely claimed Poland was not under Soviet domination, cost him a very close election.

Similarly, poor performances by Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis four years later were said to have greatly damaged their ultimately unsuccessful campaigns for the presidency, Brinkley asserted. The empathy expressed by Bill Clinton during the 1992 debates had more impact than debate performances by George H.W. Bush in which he seemed condescending, he said.

During debates four years ago, Brinkley said, Hillary Clinton appeared to have defeated Trump on substance while Trump won on showmanship. “He offered some kind of strange entertainment value that people are susceptible to in this age of celebrity and wanting to be entertained,” Brinkley said.

Now the country is looking at a presidential race between Trump and Biden that is close to a dead heat, with debates now getting underway, Brinkley said. The race is particularly tight in swing states, and both candidates are looking to influence swing voters, who are a minority of voters, but who still represent a significant slice of the voting population. Trump has succeeded previously on showmanship, but during the debates would need to not come across as mean or acting like a bully to have a successful performance, Brinkley said.

“If he overreaches in ways that people are tired of in these debates that it seems unfair, if he starts screaming at the moderator and talking about fake news in a way that seems unhinged,” he may be damaged by the debates, Brinkley said. “People feel that we need to be hinged right now, with the world in some real tough times.”

Biden can’t be as calm and measured as Mondale and Dukakis and other unsuccessful candidates have been with their demeanor and responses if he wants to be successful during the debates, Brinkley said. He needs to be willing to “get into a slugfest with Trump,” to show some emotion and his willingness to challenge his opponent, Brinkley said.

“He’s going to have to show an exertion of ideas and purpose because people in the TV age, which debates are all about, which the ratings are all about, what Trump is all about, people have to not be bored,” Brinkley said.