Tomorrow night is the night when Senators John McCain and Barack Obama are scheduled to meet in the first of three presidential debates. Whether it takes place or is postponed as John McCain has proposed, the encounter will be vital in this neck-and-neck race. Karl Rove, the architect of George W. Bush's political strategy, observed in today's Wall Street Journal, "it may be the fall's most critical event."
Rove understands the importance of preparation. He set up a debate camp at the Bush ranch in Crawford ahead of the debates with Al Gore and John Kerry. As a former lawyer, Barack Obama understands the importance of preparation. The New York Times reports that Obama "was holing up with a tight circle of advisers at a hotel in Clearwater, Fla., on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to prepare." But, the report continued, "Mr. McCain had not planned to devote large blocks of time to debate practice. [He] had a preparatory session on Wednesday afternoon at the Morgan Library in Manhattan."
Does this sound familiar?
Don Hewitt, the driving force behind CBS' 60 Minutes, happened to have been the television director of the debate Kennedy/Nixon debate in 1960. In his autobiography, Tell Me A Story, Hewitt described some of the preparations for that historic encounter: Kennedy arrived in Chicago three days before the debate to prepare and even took some time in the late September sun to get tanned. Nixon, in spite of the fact that he was fighting an infection, spent his time campaigning vigorously right up to the day of debate. He arrived at the television studio exhausted and underweight, his ill-fitting clothing hanging loosely.
Nixon had held a slim lead in the public opinion polls right up to the day of the debate. The day after the debate, Sindlinger and Company, a Philadelphia research organization, conducted a telephone poll. Those poll respondents who had watched on television thought Kennedy won, while those who had listened on the radio thought Nixon won. Kennedy took the lead in the polls and held it until his victory in November.