NEW YORK (AP) — “Each man shall make an opening statement of approximately eight minutes’ duration,” CBS-TV moderator Howard K. Smith intoned as John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon began the first televised presidential debate on Sept. 26, 1960.
On a Thursday evening 59 years later, NBC moderator Chuck Todd had this to say to Democratic presidential hopefuls in the closing moments of a 10-candidate rhetorical scrum: “Please — for one or two words only, please.”
For this particular event, the maximum time allotted for any sort of thoughtful expression was a nice round minute.
So: climate change. The economy. Taxes. Racism. Health care. How you’d stand up to China. Why you’re concerned about socialism. Go!
“If I could just finish,” said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado.
“If I may say,” said U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
“Your time has expired,” moderator Lester Holt said to author Marianne Williamson.
“Vice President Biden, 30 seconds,” said moderator Rachel Maddow.
“A REAL 30 seconds?” Joe Biden shot back.
If this week’s twin and Twittery debates demonstrated one thing about America, it was this: The ever-increasing pace of society and the fragmentation of its methods of communication have sent electoral politics drifting into the choppy waters of utter absurdity.
It made for great television, sure. It had all the elements: America’s most ambitious politicians scrabbling for air time. TV hosts interrupting them — sometimes plaintively, sometimes dictatorially — and trying to make sure everyone had his or her say, or at least that they got in a few pithy sentence fragments for the ages.
Maybe it was the otherwise frenetic nature of the debate that made its few moments of clarity so electric. They included U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris debating race with Biden in starkly personal terms; and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg accepting responsibility for failing to build a more diverse police force in his city.
Lost in the mayhem was this: America as a society is actually asking the people who would lead it to compress some of history’s most complex and persnickety problems into, not even sound bites, but sound nibbles.
Americans wonder: Why has political discourse become so sharp, so monochromatic? Perhaps because we have PowerPointed our way from clarity to simplicity to only really paying attention when the sharply defined and the simplistic rule the day.
The jockeying for a few words shouted over someone else’s few words grew so intense at one point Thursday night that Harris, standing at a lectern near the center of the political chorus line, was moved to turn it into a political aphorism.
“Hey guys, you know what?” she said. “America does not want to witness a food fight. They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.”
In this forum, a “thank you” from a host usually meant, “Enough already.” To get a word in edgewise in the tight format, men talked over women. Men talked over men. Women talked over men. (Women talking over women, not so much.)
Biden and Sanders were spotted raising their hands tentatively as Buttigieg talked. And while it took Karl Marx years to develop his theories about socialism, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper got a single minute to explain his concerns about it.
What produced this state of affairs? You could blame it on a sprawling slate of candidates, and you’d be partially right. It’s fair to say that anytime you put 10 energetic people who want to lead the “free world” on a single stage and tell them to have at it, elbows will fly.
But it’s more than that. This was but the latest iteration of political rhetoric as interstate highway billboard: Make sure all the letters and images are big enough, bold enough, colorful enough to make an impression for those driving by at 70 mph while checking their texts and reaching for their Starbucks.
Today, so much of the American media diet is delivered live and consumed in slivers of immediacy rather than larger, assembled narratives. Things arrive in a million little pieces, so each of those pieces must have a chance at being noticed, at being remembered.
But complex ideas require larger portraits, or at least collages. And when we ask the human who wants access to the nuclear button to reduce complex ideas into two or three words, or even a rushed 60 seconds with nine others trying to talk over you, that has implications — not only on the candidates themselves, but on a public grappling to understand the nuanced issues of the day.
Brevity might be the soul of wit, not to mention ratings. But pinning the future of history’s most complex republic on ideas expressed in bursts of seconds and minutes is a practice that is, well, eminently debatable.
Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation for The Associated Press, writes frequently about American culture. Follow him on Twitter at @anthonyted