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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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Food
Let Alexa Help You Brine a Turkey This Thanksgiving
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There’s a reason most of us only cook turkey once a year: The bird is notoriously easy to overcook. You could rely on gravy and cranberry sauce to salvage your dried-out turkey this Thanksgiving, or you could follow cooking advice from the experts.

Brining a turkey is the best way to guarantee it retains its moisture after hours in the oven. The process is also time-consuming, so do yourself a favor this year and let Alexa be your sous chef.

“Morton Brine Time” is a new skill from the cloud-based home assistant. If you own an Amazon Echo you can download it for free by going online or by asking Alexa to enable it. Once it’s set up, start asking Alexa for brining tips and step-by-step recipes customized to the size of your turkey. Two recipes were developed by Richard Blais, the celebrity chef and restaurateur best known for his Top Chef win and Food Network appearances.

Whether you go for a wet brine (soaking your turkey in water, salt, sugar, and spices) or a dry one (just salt and spices), the process isn’t as intimidating as it sounds. And the knowledge that your bird will come out succulent and juicy will definitely take some stress out of the holiday.

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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