Jul/Aug 2004  •   Salon

Lincoln, Douglas, and Us

by Tom Dooley

Ladies and gentlemen: I appear before you to-day for the purpose of discussing the leading political topics which now agitate the public mind. By an arrangement between Mr. Lincoln and myself, we are present here to-day for the purpose of having a joint discussion, as the representatives of the two great political parties of the State and Union, upon the principles in issue between those parties and this vast concourse of people, shows the deep feeling which pervades the public mind in regard to the questions dividing us. —Stephen A. Douglas, August 21, 1858

Originally, I set out to write a clever little piece on the Lincoln-Douglas debates, about how I thought Bush and Kerry ought to try a modern day version online. I quipped that such a forum would allow the candidate's cadres of advisors to write and deliver the responses for them, thereby leveling the playing field with respect to the candidates' intelligence, eloquence, personality, or perceived lack of the above. I reasoned such a forum would also give the voting public—at least, those who care enough to examine the finer points of the arguments—a place to find both sides of the burning issues of our day laid out in a point/counterpoint format.

I wrote the piece, and it didn't seem too bad, but something seemed to be missing. I rewrote it, twice. The problem was, the more clever or glib my writing got, the less suited to any discussion related to the upcoming presidential election it also became. Because this is not a game, and there is absolutely nothing funny about it.

There may be things that look funny at the outset, like the clip of George Bush exhorting the world to "stop the terror" and then saying, "Now watch this drive," in Michael Moore's docu-propaganda film Fahrenheit 9/11. But by the end of the film, when Bush can't figure out the saying, "Fool me once..." the laughter, if it comes at all, ought to be hollow and tinged with more than a little horror and shame. Because slanted as Moore's work may be, the events depicted in 9/11 did happen, more or less the way they're presented. And because no amount of creative editing can change the fact that our president, the man whose decisions and proclamations affect the lives of every living being on this planet, is, at best, a person of average intelligence and below average verbal skills, at worst, a terrible combination of ambition, incompetence, and outright stupidity.

If the person currently occupying the Oval Office were not a Republican, would Rush Limbaugh hesitate to call him a moron? An imbecile? A bumbling idiot? A fool?

I won't directly call him those things, nor will most of his critics, because to do so would disrespect the office. In my estimation, we've already brought enough disrespect to the office by electing this man. His actions, decisions, statements, gaffes... these are only partly Bush's responsibility. The jury is still out on how much of White House policy actually comes directly from him, anyway, and whether it does or not, he has acted with complete consistency with regards to everything known about the man before he was elected. No, the responsibility for what this man has done falls squarely on us as US citizens. We either voted for him or failed to vote against him, or we failed to get involved and do something to prevent his being elected. Every citizen in this country, including Al Gore for not being a clearly better choice and for not presenting himself as such, is responsible and accountable in some way for George W. Bush being our president and, by extension, for everything he's done since taking office. I am responsible. If Bush isn't defeated in November, I'm going to take the blame for that, too. But it will be all our faults.

This is my position: if people vote for Bush now, they do so out of either ignorance (and therefore irresponsibility) or outright disrespect of the ideals of our nation, of all the men and women who have fought, died, or otherwise sacrificed to uphold those ideals. I don't make this claim lightly, and I don't make it out of blind acceptance of Michael Moore's assertions. To me, even if some of the Bush Administration's decisions prove to ultimately be correct, Bush has nonetheless repeatedly shown himself unfit to be the president of the United States. Never mind that he was unfit to be in the National Guard or run an oil company. Never mind his record of mediocrity at everything from academia to fatherhood. It is his performance with the cameras on and the eyes of the world watching that has proven he is not fit to lead this country, to represent the United States of America. Anybody who thinks otherwise does so for motives other than love of country.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates. What I think is interesting about them, what makes them particularly salient to this election, is they show how rhetoric can shape historical reality. Rhetoric can become larger and more meaningful than its authors. It can become its own reality. But only, I suspect, if at the heart of the rhetoric there is some relentless truth, and only if the rhetoric is given an opportunity to exist in the public mind. In Lincoln's case, his rhetoric was about the immorality of slavery, and that immorality was its own relentless truth. He used the immorality of slavery as a wedge to dislodge Douglas' popular sovereignty argument, even as Lincoln himself disavowed the idea of racial equality or of freeing all the slaves. He lost the race against Douglas, but the debates opened up a rhetorical can of worms that eventually led to Lincoln's election as president, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and everything that has come since with regards to civil rights. The ideas spawned by the Lincoln-Douglas debates became bigger than anything Lincoln intended, practically dragging him and the rest of us along for the ride.

What sorts of rhetorical truths might be germinated by a debate between Bush and Kerry? That is what's important. Would these truths include some new stand on religion and/or morality in government? Would there be some new approach to class and socio-economic division? Would there be an insight into crime and punishment? What?

If we don't create a forum allowing for meaningful public discourse on the issues of today, we may never see those issues blossom into rhetorical realities the way the immorality of slavery did.

So, yes, I wish we would return to the days of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, when our political leaders were eloquent speakers and writers who generated policy ideas and were the driving force behind the ideological discourse of their time. To the days of Woodrow Wilson, who, according to Herbert Hoover, "rose to intellectual domination of most of the civilized world." Or to the days of Herbert Hoover himself, who published 15 books. Or even to the days of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, the former a Rhodes scholar, the latter the author of a halfway important book on global warming (not a "hot" topic with the current administration, to be sure).

I want a president who, when asked about his favorite philosopher, can come up with a better answer than Jesus Christ. I want a man or woman in the oval office who has original, world-changing ideas. Whose capacity for forward thinking goes beyond a think-tank-assisted appraisal of the latest polls. Who is at least mildly capable of ingesting and responsibly utilizing the ideas of others.

And if I can't have all that, I'd like to see an online debate that, while it might not quench my thirst for a candidate with substance, might at least create the illusion of such a candidate, while at the same time filling the void of reasoned public discourse in this country about issues that really matter.

Let's level the playing field. Level it right down to the ideas themselves. And let's see, for those of us who care enough to actually read what the two sides have to say, which side has the better arguments. Even more important, let's see which side has the better rebuttals. And even more important than that, which one has the better counter-rebuttals. Because political debate right now falls woefully short of counter-rebuttals. Even getting past the argument stage requires more attention than most of us are willing to invest.

It could be argued we already have televised debates. It could be argued the issues already get tossed back and forth on shows like Hardball or Dennis Miller. The problem with televised debates and televised arguments, however, and what makes them an insufficient substitute for an online debate, is there is no easily accessible, viable text for the average American voter to peruse at his or her leisure. Sensationalist shouting matches between commercial breaks do not make for a reasoned decision. And televised presidential debates? Most Americans tune in for the Sports Center-like recap, wherein some journalist gives a second-hand account and appraisal of what the candidates said. And realistically, how much rigorous debating—i.e., listening to and refuting the opposition—actually takes place during a televised debate, as opposed to posturing and endless repetition of each candidate's own carefully sanitized position?

Not to mention, the current president avoids televised debates like an aging prizefighter avoids title defenses.

The beauty of an online debate is the candidates could take all the time they needed to formulate their responses. They could have an army of people backing them up. Depending upon the candidate, it wouldn't even be necessary for him (or her!) to do anything other than approve the response before it was posted to the web. That would be the draw for the candidates. The draw for the voters would be we could finally see, without any distractions, the merits of each side's arguments. We could peruse at our leisure each point and counterpoint. The beauty for history, for posterity, would be a written document capturing the great issues of our day, showing a window into how the great thinkers (not necessarily the candidates, but shhhhh) of the day see the solutions to those issues.

It's been said there's nothing better than a triangle when it comes to good drama, and maybe it's true for intellectual debate as well. Therefore, come on in, Ralph Nader. At least in this debate, as opposed to the actual election, your presence would accomplish what you claim to be after: here your views might force both sides to acknowledge the truths neither one of them want to touch.

If we can't have Lincolns and Douglases battling over the White House, if the current individuals don't fit the bill, couldn't we at least have the existing candidates serve as figureheads? Couldn't we have them taking credit for Lincoln and Douglas-like discussions of the issues of our day? Aren't said issues important enough to deserve a real debate, as opposed to a flurry of alternating attack ads airing in West Virginia?