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I'm saddened by the amazing decline in the quality of our national discourse

Oct 10, 2016

When I was eight years old, something historic happened: The first-ever televised presidential debate between major party candidates.

My lower middle-class Detroit-area family watched it together, as did many American families, and I was encouraged to pay attention. The following day, my fourth-grade teacher encouraged discussion about the debate.

I am sure much of it was over my head, but I remember very vividly that everyone thought it an important event.

However, I don’t think our mothers would have wanted us to watch if there were any chance one of the candidates would have been asked to clarify his statement that he “moved in” on a married woman “like a bitch,” or would be asked if he really grabbed women by the genitals, as he claimed in a videotape to have been able to do.

We also had a strong and correct hunch that the Democratic candidate would be asked about her own husband’s past behavior with women.

What made me actually sad last night, however, was not the sexual allegations and distractions. It was the amazing decline in the quality of our national discourse.

Somehow I think my mother, who was a rather unanalytical Republican, would rather we watched a session of the Supreme Soviet instead.

What made me actually sad last night, however, was not the sexual allegations and distractions. It was the amazing decline in the quality of our national discourse.

I teach journalism history, and have a DVD of that famous first Kennedy-Nixon debate, which was only an hour long. Well, I watched that debate again this weekend.

The event became a political legend because in it, Nixon, who had been sick, was thought to have looked terrible, while Kennedy seemed tan and handsome.

That was in fact more or less true, but that wasn’t what most powerfully impressed me. It was that the candidates spoke to the American people like adults, and talked seriously and substantively about the major issues of the day. They answered questions about whether the minimum wage should be raised and Social Security should be expanded to include health insurance for the elderly.

They even debated farm subsidies.

Neither Kennedy nor Nixon insulted the other man at all.

When one of the reporters asked Nixon to respond to a comment by then-President Eisenhower that seemed to dismiss his contributions to the administration, he handled it with wit and charm. When Kennedy was asked about Nixon’s claims that he was too immature for the job, he did the same.

Nobody on that stage or in the audience could have imagined one of the candidates threatening to get a special prosecutor and put his rival in jail if he won.

None would have roamed around a stage, babbling mindlessly to conceal a lack of understanding of issues and policies.

Nor could either party have taken seriously a candidate without a day’s worth of experience in government. The men Kennedy and Nixon defeated for their nominations were all highly seasoned governors and senators. None would have roamed around a stage, babbling mindlessly to conceal a lack of understanding of issues and policies.

No part of me wants to live in the world of 1960, where women weren’t really equal, African-Americans were being killed for trying to vote and people thrown in jail for being gay. But presidential campaigns then were conducted on a level that showed respect for the citizens.

The one we have now will be over, finally, in less than a month. Somehow, I’d like to see us try to fix this for the future.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.