Nixon and Reagan Both Gained From Virtual Debates

By Thursday afternoon, the presidential debate scheduled for October 15 seemed in jeopardy.

With the decision of the Presidential Debate Commission to hold a virtual debate (with the participants in different locales and seen on a split screen), the President reiterated his long-standing opposition to the format.

“No, I’m not going to waste my time on a virtual debate,” Mr. Trump told Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo earlier in the day. “That’s not what debating is all about. You sit behind a computer and do a debate — it’s ridiculous.”

Two of Mr. Trump’s Republican predecessors might offer some pretty strong disagreement with him that a virtual debate is “ridiculous” and opinion that “that’s not what debating is all about.”

Both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan gained significantly from virtual televised encounters.

In the third of his four historic debates with John F. Kennedy in 1960, Nixon was in Hollywood and Democrat Kennedy was on Manhattan’s West Side.

“Each would have identical studios, with carbon-copy lighting and game show-style podiums, each performing before a bank of four cameras,” wrote historian David Pietrusza is his critically-acclaimed book “1960.”

Clearly better-prepared than in the disastrous first debate, Nixon hit hard at the Massachusetts senator and scored particularly well on who would better defend the islands of Quemoy and Matsu that were being shelled by China.

“Kennedy sounded frequently, quite angry and, for the first time, on the defensive,” concluded television critic John Crosby of the “New York Herald Tribune.”

Nixon’s polling operation, Opinion Research Corporation, “reported he had proven more effective in the third debate than had Kennedy in the first,” wrote Pietrusza.

This was, wrote Theodore White in “The Making of the President 1960,” “Nixon’s best performance in terms of impact on the audience . . . it was as if, separated by a continent from . . . his adversary, Nixon were more at ease and could speak directly to the nation that lay between them.”

Six months after winning the governorship of California and already being boomed as a Republican presidential hopeful, Ronald Reagan in 1967 agreed to a debate with Sen. Robert Kennedy, D.-N.Y. on the image of the U.S. in the world during the ongoing Vietnam War.

Everything about the debate was virtual: Reagan was in Sacramento, Kennedy was in Washington DC, and the moderator and a group of students posing questions were in London. Among those in the student audience was Rhodes scholar, basketball great, and future New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley.

Kennedy accepted the impression that Reagan was little more than a Hollywood actor who memorized lines and did not prepare for the debate.

“But Ronald Reagan had prepared well,” wrote historian Gene Kopelson in “Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan’s Emergence as a World Statesman,” “He had been mentored many times on Vietnam by former President Dwight Eisenhower, had meticulously studied fact sheets and notebooks, and had practiced debating with Edwin Meese III, Gov. Reagan’s legal affairs secretary at the time.”

Even the liberal press and RFK’s own team agreed Reagan was the big winner of the debate.  He not only responded point-by-point to Kennedy’s criticism of the U.S. action in Vietnam and apologies on behalf of the U.S., but challenged every incorrect statement made by the students.

One little-noticed but important legacy of the debate noted by Kopelson: Reagan called for tearing down the Berlin Wall, a call he would repeat as president at the Wall itself and which soon became part of history.

John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.

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