What Debates Don't Tell Us

Memorable more for one-liners than for substance, they are poor guides to performance in the Oval Office

THEY BEGAN, IN A SENSE, AS A way to fill the TV void left by the quiz-show scandals of the late 1950s. How could the networks re-create those dramatic question-and-answer confrontations that had been so popular with the viewers? Finally, two years after the $64,000 Question was yanked off the air, the format resurfaced in 1960 in a new high-minded incarnation featuring the grandest prize of all -- a four-year lease on a pretentiously formal 18th century residence in Washington.

The first contestants were two articulate World War II veterans named Jack and Dick, who had primed for their moment in...

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