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History, future of Presidential debates take center stage at Institute of Politics

By MELISSA PROULX
Union Leader Correspondent

October 16. 2017 10:02PM
Frank Fahrenkopf spoke to a group gathered at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College on Monday. (Melissa Proulx/Union Leader Correspondent)

GOFFSTOWN — There is plenty going on behind the scenes of presidential debates.

Former President Barack Obama used to have a "tie guy" who would come on stage to see which color looked best on camera. Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards’ late wife, Elizabeth, once had him try on eight different shirts for the same reason.

And then there were all the phone calls questioning whether or not U.S. Sen. John McCain was a natural born citizen and thus could participate, since he was born on the Coco Solo Naval Air Station in the Panama Canal Zone.

Those are some of the things that can happen as you prepare for a presidential debate, according to Frank Fahrenkopf.

Fahrenkopf is currently the co-chairman of the Commission on the Presidential Debates, which he helped start in 1986. The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization runs the presidential and vice presidential debates during each election cycle.

More than two dozen people gathered at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College on Monday to hear him talk about the history of the commission, its challenges and future plans for the next presidential election.

“I love to talk about it because it’s something I’m very proud of,” he said.

Debates have been a vital part of elections since the first televised on was held in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, Fahrenkopf said, giving voters an opportunity to hear candidates’ stances on the issues.

There are some things that have changed, like the town hall style format where undecided voters are given a front row chance to decide which candidate is right for them.

The 2016 debates proved no different, though there were some things that Fahrenkopf hadn’t seen in years prior. Fahrenkopf said this was the only time he’d seen a majority of Americans had a negative view of both candidates, which seemed to factor into how they debated.

“This was an unusual set of people because you had people who were more interested in attacking each other than educating the American people,” he said.

State Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, who attended the talk, said he noticed this as well and that it was detrimental.

“I think that was a disservice to the country and to those who wanted to find out where these people stood on the key issues,” he said.

D’Allesandro asked Fahrenkopf if there was anything he could do to prevent that from happening in the future.

Fahrenkopf said addressing the issue might not be as simple as controlling the microphones or telling people what tone to use.

Though there are some things the commission will be looking at in the coming months to see what might need to be changed — like the town hall format — Fahrenkopf said he doesn’t think it’s the commission’s place to control what the candidates are saying.

“If someone is a jerk, aren’t they showing the American people that they’re a jerk?,” he said.

“You’re learning a lot about that person and maybe that’s important when making a decision.”

That being said, Fahrenkopf said he feels confident about the future.

“I think we do a good job,” he said. “I hope we do a good job and we’ll continue to do it.”


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