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Presidential Debate History: Did George Washington Participate In A Debate?

NOEL KING, BYLINE: The Democratic primary debates happening in Miami this week are very different from the first-ever presidential primary debate to be televised from the state of Florida. The year was 1956, and the leading candidates were Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson and Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver. The two men sat at a desk next to each other for one hour, and they took questions from Quincy Howe of ABC News. Howe asked them about modern campaigning, including the somewhat new medium of television, and here's what Kefauver said.


ESTES KEFAUVER: I think there's nothing like getting out and meeting the people personally. And my friend Governor Stevenson has taken that up. I saw where he was shaking hands with a wax model down in the store the other day.


ADLAI STEVENSON II: Tempted - found her very tempting.


KING: Those two men ended up as running mates. We're talking about debates today with commentator Cokie Roberts. She joins us every week to talk about how the government works.

Hey, Cokie.


KING: So our first question this week is from Bill Watson. And Bill is taking us all the way back to the beginning. He asks, did George Washington ever participate in a presidential debate?

ROBERTS: No. For all intents and purposes, George Washington ran unopposed, so he would have been debating himself. But beyond that, Noel, for much of our history, presidential candidates did not campaign for themselves. And in fact, the earliest general election televised debate was also from that 1956 election, and they used surrogates to represent the candidates Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson. And those surrogates were Eleanor Roosevelt for the Democrats and Margaret Chase Smith for the Republicans.

KING: No kidding.

ROBERTS: Yep. Yes, women - women were the surrogates.

KING: I would not have guessed that.

ROBERTS: Me either.

KING: All right. Let's throw to our next listener.

MARIAN MOORE: This is Marian Moore of Harvey, La. I'd like to ask Cokie if American presidential debates ever resemble a classical debate format. Thanks.

ROBERTS: Well, if by classical format she means the Lincoln-Douglas debates, no. In fact, even Lincoln and Douglas didn't participate in debates in the presidential election where they ran against each other in 1860 and two other candidates. But Douglas did break the tradition of staying home and letting others do the campaigning. Lincoln did not.

But in the two years since he had lost the Senate race to Douglas after the debates, Lincoln campaigned for other candidates of the new Republican Party all around the country. And that went a long way to securing him the nomination.

KING: And these days, Cokie, we - the media - pay a lot of attention to debates. But we had some dissenters, people who said, are modern presidential debates really that useful? Here's our next listener.

MICAH ENBAR: Micah Enbar here from Portland, Maine. Has there ever been a time in the history of our republic where presidential debates have been anything more than a public spectacle? Did it change to the current spectacle that it is with the advent of television and the Kennedy-Nixon debates?

ROBERTS: Well, I have to tell you, Noel, I would somewhat disagree with the premise. I think many debates, including the Kennedy-Nixon debates, have been very useful. You not only can learn a lot about a candidate's position on the issues, you can see how he or she functions under pressure. Now, look. Have the debates gotten faster paced than they were in the old days? Certainly. You should hear that whole hour of the Stevenson-Kefauver debate. Oh, my goodness. And is there a certain amount of grandstanding? Of course, there is. But I still think these debates are useful. You actually learn a lot.

KING: You're going to be watching, aren't you?

ROBERTS: Oh, yes.


ROBERTS: For better or worse (laughter).

KING: Thanks, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you.

KING: Commentator Cokie Roberts - you can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and government work by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In an earlier introduction to this report, we mistakenly said that Estes Kefauver was a senator from Kentucky. In fact, he was from Tennessee.]

(SOUNDBITE OF COLLEEN'S "SOUL ALPHABET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 26, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
In an earlier introduction to this report, we mistakenly said that Estes Kefauver was a senator from Kentucky. In fact, he was from Tennessee.