Atlanta, GA – In 1960, for the first time, the presidential debates were televised. In a story that has since become a part of Political Science lore, Richard Nixon, who had just gotten out of the hospital, wore a drab suit and no makeup, looked horrible on stage pitted against the youthful, black suit wearing John F. Kennedy. The television audience overwhelmingly said that Kennedy walked away with the debate, while the radio audience resoundingly felt that Nixon had come out on top.
Just to see what it would be like, in this day and age, I didn’t watch Saturday’s GOP debate, rather I listened, in the old fashioned way.
The first surprise was that Jeb Bush sounded like a leader. In fact, had I just been coming to the race for the first time, I may well have thought that he was the frontrunner who knew what he was doing and who had massive popular support. He really sounded on his game, almost like a man who was just a few steps from the White House, save for his rational, reasoned rival, Ted Cruz.
On audio, Senator Cruz sounded more reasonable than normal, like a man with a plan. He sounded well prepared, cool and in control. Cruz sounded like he knew what he wanted and where he was going.
Donald Trump sounded absolutely unhinged. Like a screaming maniac who nobody liked. The candidates sounded united against this nut that was here for ‘no one knows what’. The audience sounded like they hated him and, again, had I just been tuning into the cycle for the first time, I would have thought Trump was running in last, and screaming nonsense in a desperate hope to get someone, anyone, to listen to him.
Marco Rubio sounded rattled at times, and at times in control, almost like there were two people inside of him, fighting to be let out. He sounded like an “also-ran,” someone who might get an honorable mention, but besides that, he won’t make the history books.
Ben Carson didn’t sound asleep at all. He didn’t sound crazy, he sounded pumped. He sounded like a real candidate, in fact, the good doctor sounded almost presidential. Carson seemed to connect to the audience both live and at home, like he was reaching right into the living room and talking to all of us.
And John Kasich? He sounded human. No, for real. John Kasich, for one fleeting moment of his career, sounded to me like he actually knew something. He sounded collected, like an adult, like someone who knows some stuff, like the kind of guy that, if he had ran thirty years ago, might be on his way to the White House.
The moderators, like good moderators, sounded barely there. Perhaps they should have jumped in sooner at points to make sure everyone followed the rules, but overall, if perhaps only because John Dickerson didn’t do half as bad as David Muir, I had no complaints.
Of course, most of the audience wasn’t listening, they were watching the debate, and Carson still seems asleep, Kasich still seems nuts, Jeb Bush still looks desperate, and Trump, still, somehow, looks tough. But I did get, for just a second, a glimpse into what this race would have looked like, had it taken place before 1960, when Kennedy set the bar so high.
Andrew C. Abbott