When Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy met in the first televised presidential debate in 1960, the tone was somber, the questioning deferential, and the format stilted.
Last week's CNBC debate among the Republican presidential candidates was a gladiator contest by comparison — fast-moving, unpredictable, and confrontational.
And why not?
The audiences are coming — CNBC and other broadcasters have enjoyed record viewership for the debates — because it's a red, white, and blue American television mashup of courtroom drama, where tough questions elicit surprise answers; team sport, where even favorite players stumble; and reality TV, where every participant has a unique narrative, moderators stoke controversy, and viewers have a say in who gets voted off the island.
Sure, the format lacks the earnest, bland decorum of earlier cycles. But there are benefits: more, earlier, and livelier debates, engaged voters, and a crucible that tests candidates and holds them to account.
It's no surprise that candidates and their campaigns, to say nothing of the political parties, want more control. Modern American politics is all about control — of message, of audience, even of room temperatures and visual backdrops. Trying to rein in the cadence and controversy stoked by the debates is a bit like legacy media wishing away the internet. Are we really worse off?
Think back a generation, to 1968, and imagine how well-informed the average American voter was then, when protests were raging in the streets against the Vietnam War, the election's fulcrum issue. The candidates never debated — the Democrat, incumbent Vice President Hubert Humphrey, didn't relish defending the policies behind the war; the Republican, Nixon, had unhappy memories of 1960's debates. Nixon won handily and, again after no debates with his rival, in a historic landslide in 1972. And then of course he resigned in 1974, amid Watergate.
It's not that American voters in 1968 didn't know Nixon — he was a former congressman, senator, vice president, and eventually three-time presidential candidate. But had he been exposed to the scrum of a half dozen multicandidate debates like CNBC's, or subject to the relentless pounding of today's factionalized digital media, would his weird, brittle demeanor (read Bob Woodward's latest book to see what I mean) have allowed his election?
It's not easy to have sympathy for politicians seeking the world's hardest, least fair, and most scrutinized job complaining that journalists are asking them unfair or impolite questions. The world isn't deferential.
Besides, what defines a candidate isn't the questions he or she gets but the answers he or she gives. Sen. Ted Cruz got far more mileage out of attacking his questioners than he would have answering a question about his views on the national debt.
Clearly, the candidates at last week's debate understood that. One or more of them managed to ignore questions not only on the national debt, but also on internet taxes, the Export-Import Bank, their personal finances, and equal pay. And then there were complaints that the CNBC debate wasn't enough about its intended topic, economics. In fact, CNBC tabulated the time spent on economic issues and says it accounted for more than half of the debate. (Full disclosure: The moderators and top news executives at CNBC are former colleagues and friends from my time at the Wall Street Journal, where we all worked.)
A major hazard for politicians is that there's always another debate looming. That's the compelling part of reality TV. The storylines build from episode to episode. Fox News's tough questioning in the first Republican debate unleashed a stream of vitriol from Donald Trump that flowed into the next debate. Here, again, the format doesn't let issues just fade; it favors the audience — and the democracy.
Candidates whose feel-good proposals won't meet reality's test or who try to bend the truth find themselves confronted the next time around with the facts. Ben Carson was asked on CNBC about his proposal for a politically appealing but unrealistically low 10 percent flat tax, which he described in an August 6 debate. Donald Trump is sure to be asked in the future about his website's critical view of Sen. Marco Rubio's relationship to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, which Trump at the debate denied knowing about.
If anything, to borrow an idea from a longtime Washington Republican I know, CNBC should have taken a page from the late, great Tim Russert, former moderator of NBC's Meet the Press, and had a display screen in the debate hall for showing the videos or materials on which the moderators were basing their questions. Let the facts quiet the bloviation.
The frequency and intensity of the debates serve a crucial purpose. In the 2011-'12 cycle, nearly every Republican running enjoyed at least a week at or near the top of crucial election polls, most after good showings in debates. This year, two of the five Democratic candidates for president dropped out, again after debate showings; so did two Republicans. The crucible works.
Which is why it makes little sense for the Republican National Committee to grouse, as it did last week, when Chair Reince Priebus blasted CNBC and said it would keep the network's corporate cousins at NBC out of a planned debate next February. In his letter, he said the point of the debates is for candidates to "lay out" their plans. Maybe at an abstract level.
But the point of the debates is for viewers, who presumably are voters, to field-test the ideas and personal character of candidates. And it worked; just ask Rubio or Cruz, whose standing got a lift, or Jeb Bush, whose campaign lost support after the debate. There will be further ups and downs, many of them driven by debates.
It's a healthy thing for our democracy that viewers can glean insights into candidates' fortitude, behavior, and allegiance to truth and ideas — a triumph, in its way, of reality TV.
Marcus Brauchli, as executive editor of the Washington Post, jointly arranged with Bloomberg News a GOP presidential debate in October 2011. He is also a former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and now is managing partner at North Base Media.
Disclosure: NBC Universal, the parent company of CNBC, is a minority owner of Vox Media.