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Debate Prep: A Brief History of American Political Debates

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by Maggie Koerth-Baker

From the Revolution up to the turn of the 20th century, America preferred that its presidential candidates be seen and not heard. The presidency was regarded as so solemn an office that it was considered indecent and prideful to aspire to. Instead, candidates were to approach nomination as if it were something that just happened to them—”Oh golly. Well, if The People say I must, I guess I have to!”

While the candidates had their hands full cultivating the self-effacing persona of an honest leader, their handlers, political allies, and fans did all the dirty work: printing fliers, holding public Q & A sessions, and generally campaigning on the candidate’s behalf. They even handled press write-ups, this being an era when newspapers were often owned and run by political partisans who made no claims about fair and balanced reportage.

However, this isn’t to say that politicians of the time didn’t know public speaking from a hole in the head.

Great, sweeping debates were common in the houses of Congress, and many politicians were experts at using the spoken word to convince their colleagues of a particular point—they simply thought it disgraceful to turn those oratory skills on the unwitting public. So great was the social taboo against campaigning for yourself that it wasn’t until 1840 that a candidate, Whig party member William Henry Harrison, was able to advocate his own election and still win. Even then, most historians think he got away with it because of a split in the Democratic party, rather than any change in public morals.

Lincoln the Heckler

Lincoln-Douglass.jpgThe first true election debates were probably the ones held between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglass over the Illinois senate seat. In fact, those debates are famous today partly because such spectacles were extremely rare. Debates hadn’t actually been planned as a part of the race. Rather, Lincoln managed to cajole Douglass into them by showing up at all of the incumbent’s speaking engagements and peppering him with questions (read: heckling) from the audience. The ensuing series captured the imagination of audiences in Illinois and around the country and drew huge crowds. Of course, all this was more than a little ironic, since the audiences had absolutely nothing to do with which candidate won the election. At the time, senators were still appointed by state legislatures, as per the original draft of the Constitution. By simply bringing their views to the public at large, Lincoln and Douglass were accused of violating the spirit of the country’s founding document.

But in the end, the candidates (or, at least, Lincoln) had the last laugh. Although the Illinois State Legislature opted not to appoint the young upstart to the Senate, the debates made him a national celebrity and gave him the recognition and credibility to win the presidency (without debating anybody) two years later.

TV Kills the Radio Star

During the 20th century, presidential debates became more acceptable, but still not very common. Some election years they’d happen. Some they wouldn’t. And the public really didn’t pay a lot of attention. That started to change in 1948, when Thomas Dewey faced off against Harold Stassen in a radio broadcast debate for the Republican nomination. The first televised debate famously came in 1960, showing a poised, handsome John F. Kennedy squaring off against a sweaty, flustered Richard Nixon and giving the first hint at how image would influence future elections. However, it took a few years for the public and networks to catch on—televised presidential debates didn’t become a regular feature of election seasons until 1976.

This passage was written by Maggie Koerth-Baker and excerpted from the mental_floss book 'In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything.' You can pick up a copy here.

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Animals
Fisherman Catches Rare Blue Lobster, Donates It to Science
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Live lobsters caught off the New England coast are typically brown, olive-green, or gray—which is why one New Hampshire fisherman was stunned when he snagged a blue one in mid-July.

As The Independent reports, Greg Ward, from Rye, New Hampshire, discovered the unusual lobster while examining his catch near the New Hampshire-Maine border. Ward initially thought the pale crustacean was an albino lobster, which some experts estimate to be a one-in-100-million discovery. However, a closer inspection revealed that the lobster's hard shell was blue and cream.

"This one was not all the way white and not all the way blue," Ward told The Portsmouth Herald. "I've never seen anything like it."

While not as rare as an albino lobster, blue lobsters are still a famously elusive catch: It's said that the odds of their occurrence are an estimated one in two million, although nobody knows the exact numbers.

Instead of eating the blue lobster, Ward decided to donate it to the Seacoast Science Center in Rye. There, it will be studied and displayed in a lobster tank with other unusually colored critters, including a second blue lobster, a bright orange lobster, and a calico-spotted lobster.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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Australian Scientists Discover First New Species of Sunfish in 125 Years
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Courtesy Murdoch University

Scientists have pinpointed a whole new species of the largest bony fish in the world, the massive sunfish, as we learned from Smithsonian magazine. It's the first new species of sunfish proposed in more than 125 years.

As the researchers report in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the genetic differences between the newly named hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) and its other sunfish brethren was confirmed by data on 27 different samples of the species collected over the course of three years. Since sunfish are so massive—the biggest can weigh as much as 5000 pounds—they pose a challenge to preserve and store, even for museums with large research collections. Lead author Marianne Nyegaard of Murdoch University in Australia traveled thousands of miles to find and collected genetic data on sunfish stranded on beaches. At one point, she was asked if she would be bringing her own crane to collect one.

Nyegaard also went back through scientific literature dating back to the 1500s, sorting through descriptions of sea monsters and mermen to see if any of the documentation sounded like observations of the hoodwinker. "We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time," she said in a press statement. "Overall, we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the 'hoodwinker.'"

Japanese researchers first detected genetic differences between previously known sunfish and a new, unknown species 10 years ago, and this confirms the existence of a whole different type from species like the Mola mola or Mola ramsayi.

Mola tecta looks a little different from other sunfish, with a more slender body. As it grows, it doesn't develop the protruding snout or bumps that other sunfish exhibit. Similarly to the others, though, it can reach a length of 8 feet or more. 

Based on the stomach contents of some of the specimens studied, the hoodwinker likely feeds on salps, a jellyfish-like creature that it probably chomps on (yes, sunfish have teeth) during deep dives. The species has been found near New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and southern Chile.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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