By Deandra Williamson
Point Park News Service
When watching a presidential debate, veteran newsman Sander Vanocur always looks at the intelligence and character of a candidate and evaluates whether the candidate has the capacity to do not what is right for himself, but what is right for the country.
During a debate, people should examine the candidates’ command for the subject matter and their connection to the audience, according to former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Kirk Jr.
Before the first 2012 presidential debate took place, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette hosted a town meeting on Thursday, Sept. 27 at the Heinz History Center. Those who attended examined the fundamentals of presidential debates and presented tips on how to evaluate the candidate.
Vanocur, a veteran ABC and NBC reporter, and Paul Kirk Jr. were panelists at the town meeting, along with Torie Clark, senior political advisor for Comcast, and Thomas Rath, senior advisor to the Mitt Romney for president campaign.
Having to decide what is right for the country rather than an individual is a tough decision, but there were presidents who were able to do that. There were also presidents who may have been able to make this decision, but decided not to, according to Vanocur.
The first presidential debate took place in 1960 in Chicago. Former Vice President Richard Nixon was the Republican candidate and former Senator John. F. Kennedy was the Democratic candidate. Approximately 66 million people viewed this televised debate.
No debates took place for the presidential elections of 1964, 1968 and 1972, but they resumed in 1976. Every year since, debates are a vital part to presidential campaigns.
On Wednesday, Oct. 3, approximately 50 million people watched as President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney debated on domestic policy.
According to Kirk, while watching the debate, Americans should examine the candidates to determine whether the candidate is a good communicator, has confidence and cares about people.
“We do not want a dumb chief executive,” said Vanocur, who also served as the questioner at the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960.
According to Rath, the best presidential debate was in 1980 with Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.
“Ronald Reagan was the best I’ve ever seen,” Rath said. “He did an incredible job.”
Vanocur’s two favorite presidents were Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan because both men knew who they were and were at ease with who they were.
Preparing for a presidential debate is like preparing for a major athletic event and a lot of time and money is spent. It becomes similar to American Idol, with a huge crowd cheering and screaming when a candidate walks into the arena.
The Obama supporters will be watching the debate to observe how Romney conducts himself, how he answers his questions and how aggressive he is. Romney supporters will do the same to Obama during the debate.
Besides all the glitz and glamour associated with the presidential debates, it is a crucial time when candidates are given an opportunity to express their opinions to the American people and let them know what really matters, so that they will have a better chance of becoming the next president.
As a presidential candidate, part of the debate is conveying to Americans that they can live with this candidate, trust this candidate, be comfortable with this candidate and know that this candidate will not embarrass them.
“This individual will live in your living room every night for the next four years,” Kirk said.
Kirk thinks that being a successful debater is unnecessary for becoming the president of the United States. He believes that other qualities such as confidence, vision, being a communicator and an educator matters more.
President Obama used the Democratic Primary debates to great affect, which helped him to win the presidential election in 2008.
“I think if he didn’t have numerous opportunities to get up on stage and look and sound equivalent or better than the others, he would not be the president today,” Clark said.
Some people may wonder whether a candidate is lying during the debate and sometimes it can be hard to tell if he is.
According to Clark, look for passive inconsistencies during the debate and if the candidate says, “My honest answer is,” then he is presumably lying.
Presidential debates are huge enterprises and thousands of people are involved in the negotiations over the debates, as they have to decide where the debate will be, who the moderator will be and what the questions will be.
According to Clark, it would be wonderful if those thousands of people who work for the campaign and the thousands of hours a candidate spends preparing for these debates, spend that same time working on a way to put out more specifics about what can be done to fix the economy.
Debates are a waste of time and money and they would be more useful if there were more of them and if they were longer than 45 minutes to an hour because that is not enough time to cover the issues that needs to be covered in a presidential election, according to Clark.
This year social media will make a huge difference in the debates. Four years ago, Twitter barely existed and there were a million and a half tweets per day. This year there will be a million and a half tweets every four to five minutes during the debates.
“Debates matter not much, but social media might change it,” Clark said.
Voter surveys show that debates of a general election are the single most important voter education project in a democracy.
According to the Commission on Presidential Debates, the primary reason for having debates is for voter education.
Vanocur would like for the presidential debates to continue and thinks that the debates should not be looked upon as a way to cause conflict, but as a way to advance dialogue in this democracy.
Rath advised the people in the audience who have already decided who they are going to vote for to put their hands down and give Obama and Romney a chance to talk to them.
For an American who supports Romney, Obama is going to say nothing that is good enough and for an American who supports Obama, Romney is going to say nothing that is good enough, according to Rath.
The only way the debate can play the role that it is supposed to, is if people go there and watch it with the same kind of openness and preparation that the candidates have.
“This at the end of the day is a job interview and you’ve got to decide who you are comfortable with,” Rath said.