If It's Not on TV, Did It Really Happen?

By Roger Simon

January 20, 2015 6 min read

The Republican Party recently released a list of nine "official" primary debates for the 2016 presidential campaign.

The party wishes to avoid the debacle of 2012, in which voters were allowed to witness the GOP contenders in nearly two dozen debates.

You would think publicity is what the party would want, but you would be wrong.

The more the public saw the Republican candidates last time around the more they thought they were watching a reality TV show or the bar scene from "Star Wars."

So this time, the party wants to make sure the candidates do not expose themselves too much.

Maybe I put that badly.

The complete formats and rules for the debates have not been announced, but I can predict one thing: The press will be invited to come to the debate sites, sit in large rooms in nearby locations and watch the debates on television.

Going into the debate hall and watching the debates in person?

Forget about it. Waste of seats.

Reporters will fly thousands of miles to attend these debates. And then we will watch them on TV sets, just as we could have done by staying at home.

But staying at home means no frequent-flier points and no expense account dinners, so you will find very few reporters complaining.

I first witnessed the eviction of the press from the debate halls in 1987. It was not mean-spirited. The debate organizer just didn't think the press really wanted to be in the same room as the candidates.

In July 1987, William Buckley's "Firing Line" sponsored a debate for Democratic presidential contenders in the 2,000-seat Wortham Center in Houston.

Each candidate was given 130 tickets to hand out to supporters. The remaining seats went to dignitaries and to the corporate underwriters of the show.

Exactly zero seats were allocated for the press.

A few journalists, including me and Robert Novak, complained. Why had we flown to Houston to watch the debate on TV?

Because you can't put a "Houston" dateline on your story unless you are in Houston, some of our colleagues pointed out.

But as long as we had schlepped to Houston, maybe we should go to the added burden of actually watching the debate in person, we said. A few agreed with us, but most disagreed.

My complaint to the organizers counted as nothing, but a complaint by Bob Novak was a big deal, so a handful of seats were cleared for the press in the debate hall.

There was an enormous thunderstorm in Houston on debate night, however, and because of flooding, downed trees and snarled traffic, there were a number of empty seats in the debate hall.

So just before the debate was about to begin, an organizer went into the pressroom and announced that extra seats would be made available for the press in the debate hall.

The reporters looked at one another. The pressroom was well-lit and had plenty of TV monitors and tables, plus electrical outlets and phone lines.

Why trade all that good stuff just to see a debate in person? And just about everybody stayed in the pressroom.

Flash-forward 14 months. It is now September 1988, and we are at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to witness the first presidential debate between and George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis.

This is the debate that nobody remembers. It will be the second presidential debate that makes history when Dukakis is asked, "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"

But that is still a few weeks away. This debate will be remembered for nothing in particular, but I will always remember it for what happened immediately afterward.

The debate was moderated by Jim Lehrer and had a panel of journalists that included Peter Jennings of ABC News.

The debate lasted 90 minutes. After it ended, Jennings rushed from the stage and over to the ABC News booth to do post-debate analysis with David Brinkley.

Brinkley asked Jennings what he thought of the debate.

"I don't know," Jennings replied. "I haven't seen it on television."

Jennings was not being cute. Even though he had participated in the debate and had been only a few feet away from the candidates, he felt he had not "really" seen it, because he had not seen it the way most Americans had: on the television screen.

Jennings' observation has now become accepted fact: Watching the debate in the debate hall is counterproductive. Real life cannot compare to broadcasted life.

When it comes to politics, if a tree falls in the forest, it had better do so on TV.

Roger Simon is Politico's chief political columnist. His new e-book, "Reckoning: Campaign 2012 and the Fight for the Soul of America," can be found on Amazon.com, BN.com and iTunes. To find out more about Roger Simon and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

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