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The Lost Art of Political Debating

Naveen Sunkavally

When Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas had the second of their seven fabled debates of 1858, 15,000 people congregated upon Freeport, Illinois, then a town of 5,000 people. On an elevated platform, outdoors, these orators simply stood and debated, sometimes for more than three hours, on defining issues such as "popular sovereignty" and slavery.

Come 140 years - we have Paul Cellucci and Scott Harshbarger. On Monday at Faneuil Hall, they stood on an elevated platform within a small auditorium for less than hour, in front of a small audience of members who paid to get in, and yelled at each other. For an event dubbed to be in the style of the "Lincoln-Douglas" debates of 1858, it was anything but.

Is it just me, or has some profound political spirit been dulled into ambivalence over the last 140 years?

When I arrived Monday night at Faneuil Hall before the debate, there was a crowd of about 1,000 Cellucci and Harshbarger supporters, at maximum. The crowd was exhilarated enough. While sifting through the crowd, I couldn't help but overhear arguments over such things as, "You call yourself a laborer - I'll tell you what a laborer is," and chants of little children saying with their parents, "Hey, Ho, Cellucci must go." It was like a carnival, with bullhorns blaring and signs clashing.

But then it hit me: 1,000 people is not even close to 15,000 people, 15,000 in a time when the population of the United States was easily less than half of what it is now. And what's more astounding is that none of these 1,000 people was actually allowed to watch the debate in person. Throughout the entire one hour or so, these people stood outside and looked at the walls of a building.

In a democracy, citizens are entitled to the opportunity to make informed opinions about the representatives for whom they vote. These citizens, these voters who gathered in front of Faneuil Hall, should have had the right to view the debate first-hand, in person, live, without having to resort to their pocketbooks or possibly adulterated newspapers and television broadcasts. It's utterly ludicrous that people have to pay to see a public debate, that they essentially have to pay to make an informed vote.

And even among the press, not all had an easy time getting into the hall where the debate took place. As a member of a college newspaper, I was told by staff members to go to the "fourth floor." The "fourth floor," as it turned out, was a room with some benches, two televisions, and some portrait paintings on the wall. The televisions had live feeds to the debate in the hall directly downstairs. This was where Iwas to remain, with a bunch of other reporters from other college newspapers and FOX News.

When finally pressured to respond to questions as to why we couldn't enter the main hall to see the debate, an organizer of the event gave brief responses, trying her best to maintain a semblance of polity. Apparently, we weren't part of a "consortium," made up of The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, and Channels 2, 4, 5, and 7. Only members of these media outlets, which paid for their seats - and incidentally sponsored the debate - were let in, along with Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and others who paid.

Paying to see a public debate? The thought is simply ridiculous. None of the 15,000 in Freeport had to pay to watch Lincoln and Douglas debate - and hey, Lincoln and Douglas must have been infinitely more worthwhile watching than the likes of Argeo and "Beam me up, Scottie."

But I finally got to see the debate in person. Right before the debate started, a kind gentleman working on staff let me in to an upper balcony-like structure, from where I could view the debate and the paid audience members directly below us. From there, amidst the flurry of photographers and newsman from media sources such as channels 2, 4, 5, and 7, I was able to watch the debate.

And let me tell you - as hard as it was to get into the actual hall in which I had the distinct privilege of breathing the same air as Ted Kennedy - it was even harder to make sense of what sort of debate was raging down below, whether it was really a debate at all or just some sort of raucous frenzy of accusations ricocheting back and forth between the two gubernatorial candidates. The wittiest line, by Paul Cellucci ŕ la Jack Nicholson, "Scott, you can't handle the truth," was also the most insubstantive line. Harshbarger would say that student test scores went down during the Cellucci/Weld administration; Cellucci would say they went up. Both would use negative campaigning to accuse each other of negative campaigning. The truth was smeared around like cream cheese on a bagel, and it's hard to believe anyone could have swallowed it whole. If the voters of Massachusetts were undecided when the debate started, they must have been even more undecided after the debate ended. When the debate ended, there couldn't have been more than 100 of the original 1,000 left to watch the walls outside, and the crowd was thinning fast.

I think the explosive growth of the media today is at least partially responsible for the lack of substantive public politics and the feeling of voter unrest today. First of all, the media is the source of multiple distortions of the truth, not only from the way politicians can manipulate the public through media advertising, but also through the inherent nature of media itself.

For example, I heard that during this debate Cellucci packed the hall, much like a president could pack the Supreme Court, with supporters from one of the groups that endorsed him. Now, when I view such a debate on TV, and when I hear the audience booing one way and applauding another way, there's going to be some sort of psychological effect that steers me towards those audience's views, regardless of how much I can filter out. There's simply so many possible sources of information, so many possible sources of misinformation, that it becomes harder and harder for the voter to come to a decisive conclusion.

Secondly, isn't there something inherently wrong in having the major media outlets sponsoring an event that they are covering, as was the case with the Cellucci­Harshbarger debate? Isn't there some sort of conflict of interest? The media's duty is not to create but to report on news. If Cellucci and Harshbarger couldn't have had their yelling contest without media sponsorship, and if the media had refused to cover the free-for-all without their sponsorship, then there's a severe problem with the media's role in politics today.

And thirdly, whether the media is completely accurate in their coverage or not, the more media there are, the easier it becomes for people to get information. And when someone hands you information, it's easier to take the information for granted and to become apathetic towards it. I can't help but think that those 10,000 out-of-towners who made the trip to Freeport simply cared more about politics because there were few other avenues to get the information they needed.

I think that while the growth of media and misinformation is hard to avoid, people should be allowed, especially in matters at the heart of democracy, to make informed opinions. A near media monopoly on political coverage and the lack of a free way for citizens of this commonwealth to view a debate in person makes for a disastrous combination. When money and capitalism enter the arena of the voting process, when citizens are not allowed distinct interpretations of events, political apathy and indecisiveness run amuck.

Personally, I think Cellucci and Harshbarger should have grabbed a couple of lawn chairs and microphones and headed for the Common, where everyone and everyone's pet could have seen them. And maybe that way, with the public directly facing them, politicians can shape up their political rhetoric to the level of such fabled orators before us as Lincoln and Douglas.