Last weekend, Hillary Clinton’s campaign sent a letter to Barack Obama, challenging him to a new kind of debate — actually an old kind. Sort of. Her campaign wrote to Obama’s:
"This year marks the 150th anniversary of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, a series of public debates across Illinois where two candidates put their ideas, their visions, and their values before the American people. I have no doubt that Senator Obama, who hails from that great state, understands how valuable and vital these national conversations were to the heart of America….We can surely meet the standards our forbearers did."
The Obama campaign declined to go along with the Clinton debate proposal, which, at this point, is kind of a relief.
The proposal was tethered to a nice historical anniversary, but the analogy doesn’t really hold up under rudimentary study.
Granted, historical re-enactment was not at the heart of the suggestion, but in trying to turn the Lincoln-Douglas debates into a 2008 brand, a sharper eye on history might have been refreshing. (Speaking of which, when Fox News covered this debate proposal, they showed an image of Frederick Douglass behind their report instead of Stephen Douglas. Whew.)
Lincoln and Douglas, in 1858, were presenting orations, more than debating. One would speak for an hour, the other would respond for an hour and a half ,and then the one who got to go first had a final thirty minutes for himself. Not really "conversations," and not the 2-minutes sound bites that the Clinton campaign’s letter went on to propose for its "Lincoln-Douglas" debates. The Clinton time-limit proposal did indicate how well today’s campaigners know that we aren’t the listeners of 1858; listeners then were primed, not for "prime time," but for periodic sentences and arguments extending across the number of sentences that deep thinking deserves.
Lincoln and Douglas were running for the U.S. Senate from Illinois. The Illinois people may have been, and may still be, "the heart of America," but they did not get to vote for Lincoln or Douglas. State legislatures, not the people, got to elect U.S. senators until 1914. The IL state legislature picked Douglas.
And therein lies the way that, even if the 2008 "Lincoln-Douglas" debates between Clinton and Obama don’t happen, there is a shadow of the originals that lingers: ultimately "the American people" had no direct power to choose between Lincoln or Douglas and ultimately "the American people" this year look likely again to find the choice in the hands of elected politicians, those super-delegates.
So maybe the historical analogy does hold up after all! It looks like we are meeting "the standards our forbearers did."
Even without all the 2008 hoo-hah, it’s worth reading Allen C. Guelzo’s Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America (S&S), above, which I praised in my Lincoln roundup review in LJ in December. And Roy Morris Jr. takes a longer study of the two men’s politically intertwined lives in his The Long Pursuit: Abraham Lincoln’s Thirty-Year Struggle with Stephen Douglas for the Heart and Soul of America (Collins/Smithsonian), which will be reviewed in our next Lincoln roundup. Keep an eye out for it.