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starsJim Lehrer hosts Debating Our Destiny
A look at the pivotal moments from the last 48 years of presidential debates through the eyes of those who were there.
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star For Teachers

Debating Our Destiny is designed to augment American History, Social Studies, Public Speaking and Debate curriculums. Because it contains many primary sources, both video and text, it can be used for specific lessons and as a research tool for students.

The site contains debate transcripts and video clips from 1976-2004. In addition, there are contemporary interviews with debate participants reflecting on their performances and the role of debates in elections.

In the right hand column are elementary and secondary school lesson plans, as well as high school lesson suggestions designed with help from Professor George Brashears of Georgetown University to walk students through the materials and help them think about how debates affect our political system. The goal is also to inspire broader interest in this year's elections

Related Links
NewsHour Extra - teaching resources from the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
Lesson Plans

Debates: Helpful or Useless?
"You can have a good president that might not be the best in the top of his game in a staged debate. But maybe he can do it quietly, maybe he can do it without having a hair part and a make-up just right and a smile at the right time." --President George Bush

"Having to do them and knowing that if you blow it, they will change a lot of votes, forces people who wish to be president to do things that they should do. And I am convinced that the debates that I went through, especially those three in 1992, actually helped me to be a better president." --President Bill Clinton

Are presidential debates a necessary part of the political process?

In his interview with Jim Lehrer, President George Bush answers "no" and calls presidential debates mere "show business."

President Clinton disagrees. He says "there is some substance; there is some meat there."

Who do you agree with?

Have students watch or read the whole interviews with President Bush and President Clinton and then answer the following questions:

How do voters get information about where candidates stand on certain issues?

How is information about a candidate controlled? Who controls it?

What reasons do the former presidents give to support their opinions of debates?

After watching a debate, what do you think? Did you get a clearer picture of the candidates? Was it more about their behavior, clothing and one-line zingers, or did you think that the speakers were challenged to think about and explain their positions?

Cosmetics vs. Substance
Could a president like William Howard Taft (over 300 pounds) or Franklin Roosevelt (confined to a wheelchair) be elected in an age of television? Would the public choose Lincoln over Douglas if they could see Lincoln's face, described by many as extremely ugly?

The visual medium of television shades reality.

Former Senator Bob Dole notes that his analysis of the Kennedy-Nixon radio debate changed dramatically when he saw the videotapes later. Nixon's sweaty, shadowy face contrasted poorly with the confident smile of the young Kennedy.

Gestures that would otherwise go unnoticed, can become important. Did President Bush's glance at his watch reveal his impatience with the debate, or was it a meaningless reflex? In his interview, Bush regrets the big deal that was made from a private moment.

The candidates' posture and gestures can reveal a lot. Notice the debaters' stances at the podiums. With the sound turned down, what does the body language say?

In the 1976 debate between Presidents Carter and Ford a technical difficulty created an uncomfortable situation. While technicians tried to fix a sound problem, both Carter and Ford stood stiffly for 27 minutes at the podiums. Neither wanted to sit down, for fear of seeming to back away.

How do you think an event like that affects a voter's opinion of a candidate?

Should those evaluations matter? When debates are on television, does everything become show business?

Is the picture, as the adage suggests, "worth a thousand words"; or, does the picture simplify and obscure a complex issue? Could the visual image actually distract from critical thinking?

Suggested Activity for Teachers of Public Speaking/Debate:

The following activity can help to bring home to students the fact that we "size up the speaker" quite quickly based on demeanor and "look" rather than content.

Early on in the class, begin a lecture for which you are very well-prepared, and for which you have rehearsed an animated delivery. Tell the students to listen carefully and proceed for about ten minutes. Then stop. Ask the students to describe your performance in just four words that come to them quickly without any long reflection. Have them write down the words. Randomly elicit their responses and make a list of them on the board. You will probably get things like "organized", "interesting" "smart" (but be prepared for negative ones, depending on the maturity and seriousness of the group).

Shift the discussion to how the students arrived at their judgements. Questions like, "How did I move?" get them to focus on the non-verbal behavior that supports a clear message. Now ask then to describe what you said. Discuss which made more of an impact.

Books for further study:

Brennan, Ruth M.G.: Listening for a President: A Citizen's Campaign Methodology. Praeger Publishers, 1990

Friedenberg, Robert: Rhetorical Studies of National Political Debate. Praeger Publishers, 1997

Henggler, P.R.: The Politics of Style Since JFK. Chicago, 1995

Jamieson, Kathleen Hall: Eloquence in an Electronic Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988

Kendall, Kathleen: Presidential Campaign Discourse. State University of New York Press, 1995

Sanders, Barry: The Private Death of Public Discourse. Beacon Press, 1998

Conflict and Personal Attacks

How do candidates handle attacks against their character and personal insults?

1988 presidential candidate Michael Dukakis says the fundamental mistake he made was not having a "strategy for dealing with Bush's attack campaign."

Take a look at the debate, how did the candidates criticize each other? Were they effective?

In the same year, vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen insulted Dan Quayle in the third vice presidential debate by saying Quayle didn't have the right to compare himself to President Kennedy. How was it resolved? Did Quayle handle it well?

Bentsen wasn't the only one on the attack. In his interview with Jim Lehrer, Vice President Dan Quayle said his strategy was to attack Dukakis. What were his reasons?

What is the role of insults and personal attacks in politics? How do people use them in everyday life?

Conflict resolution experts state that there are three ways to handle an insult:

  1. Walk away
  2. Attack back
  3. Come to a principled conclusion

Does this apply to politics?

The PBS site It's My Life has a section on dealing with conflict and bullies that might be appropriate for some classes. http://pbskids.org/itsmylife/friends/bullies/article4.html

Produced by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions in association with the Commission on Presidential Debates and WETA

Debating Our Destiny is brought to you, in part, by: Chevron

Copyright 2008 MacNeil/Lehrer Productions
MacNeil/Lehrer Productions