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Candidates consider TV debate

I cannot help it if people choose to live in New Orleans, where I see it was 101 yesterday, or farther north, but still in the south, in Atlanta where it's 94 or even farther north still in Washington DC, a provincial government city which is boasting, as I speak, of delicious seasonable weather, sunny, clear and 84 degrees which does, for Washington, suggests that winter is not far behind.

But for us above the 40th parallel, there has appeared the blessed boon of the finest of Canada's exports to the United States, the north-west wind which, having come across 3,000 miles of dry land, disperses all the seaborne haze and smog, like a fumigator in a garbage bin and, as I talk, leaves New York bone dry, crystal clear, razor sharp and baby blue.

It's a time, obviously, for a sunny, cheerful talk. It's a time when even the most sullen bus drivers startle their passengers by wishing them a good morning. It's a time when constitutional strollers quicken their steps and feel ready for anything, which was a lucky thing yesterday for a 32-year-old woman, a Mrs Arledge, who was stepping smartly along Park Avenue at high noon when somebody bumped into her.

'All of a sudden', she said, dropping vividly into the historic present, 'I feel a lightness.' The lightness was due to her having been relieved of her handbag containing $160 in cash and a pack of credit cards. 'Then', she said, 'I see a person running very fast and like something surreal I see my bag floating away from me. He was a gazelle, a sprinter. I've never seen anybody run so fast. I let out a primal scream like I've just been shot and start yelling, "Stop that man!" '

The man, for this gazelle turned out, after all, to be a man, was already halfway across the nearest side street with Mrs Arledge, the roused tigress, after him. Unaccountably, he wheeled back and headed for her. What would you have done? What she did was a feat of amazing grace. 'I dived at his chest with my right shoulder like a football player (an American football player). I hit him solidly, it was like running into a car. It threw me to the ground but I slowed him down.'

She did more than that. She outraged him with her football cross-body block so that he reeled in time to be punched by a halted cab driver and then pounded with an attaché case by a passing businessman. By the time he was recovering from this outrage against his civil rights, two cops had arrived and cuffed him and hauled him off to the jug. Mrs Arledge went along to identifying him and, offered a tranquiliser, scorned it. Was she scared? 'No,' she said, 'I wasn't scared, I was just mad.'

I quote this remarkable incident because it's what happens, or happened, in all the best Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy movies but practically never happens in life. How many women in the Western world, seeing a handbag float away, surrealistically or not, would immediately execute a footballer's cross-body block against an oncoming gazelle? Of course, I must say it helps if you are, like Mrs Arledge, the wife of the president of a television network's sports department.

For the wives of non-football fans, a device is now being marketed which looks like a solid tie clip. You snap it on to your lapel or blouse or T-shirt or whatever. When the thief grabs you close, the device releases a gas carrying an odour as pungent as the exhaust of a skunk. The manufacturer of this marvel swears that no mugger or attacker can stand it.

I should like to keep up these cheerful, spunky notes but all is not sunny, as you would not expect it to be, in the relations between the three cross-country runners who are hoping to wind up in the White House. Their names, for anyone who came in late on this race which happens like the Olympics once every four years and breeds just about as much ill-will, are Carter, Reagan and Anderson. Mr Carter, the Democrat, is already in the White House and wants to stay there. Mr Reagan, the Republican, is, in the public's view of the race, running neck and neck with Mr Carter. Jogging gamely well behind is Mr Anderson, a congressman and a Republican who can't bear the choice of either Carter or Reagan and is taking his own independent route to the White House.

The race, or campaign, begins officially in the first week in September, though some sharp-eared listeners may have noticed that it really began about two years ago. However, the moment the official starting gun is sounded, it used to be that people looked in their newspapers to see when the rival candidates were going to appear on the rear platform of a train as it came through their town. Today, the moment the gun goes off, people ask each other, 'When is the first television debate?' And, I suppose, if you're under 40, you assume that it's an old American tradition. In fact, it's a good deal younger than American television but it started in 1960 and it was not conceived by either of the two candidates, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. It was conceived by guilt on the part of the networks and by a dramatic jump in the viewing figures which offered a way of assuaging that guilt. Let me explain.

The guilt grew out of a general complaint in 1959 at the trashiness and increasing violence of many television programmes and it grew out, also, of a particular scandal. In 1959, it came out that the winner of the biggest money prize in the most popular TV quiz show had been fed the answers to the final round. In no time the press made other probes and found other so-called 'payola' scandals. There was a well-publicised congressional investigation which thoroughly scared the networks to the point of fearing that they might lose their franchise unless they made amends by fulfilling more conscientiously their legal obligation to give substantial time to what the government's responsible body, the federal communications commission, called 'public service'.

The networks, up to that point, had generally looked on public service programmes as certain money losers. Now they yearned to do their public duty and give time free for the discussion of national issues. The free time was long overdue. In 1950, ten years before the first presidential television debate, only 11 per cent of America's families owned a television set. Ten years late in the presidential year of 1960, 88 per cent of American families had one.

The networks new-found good intentions were then seen to be blocked by an actual law – a section of the Communications Act said that every radio and television station in the country that offered free time to a political candidate must also offer equal time to everyone else who was a candidate for that office. The networks, two of them anyway, in consultation, had already decided that the best show they could put on in the public interest, would be to offer free time for the two main presidential candidates, Vice-President Nixon and Senator John Kennedy, to debate the issues.

But, as the law stood, it would require them, also, to give equal debating time to 14 other candidates, however large or minute their body of supporters, who were running on such party tickets as farmer labour, socialist, vegetarian or whatever. Obviously, 16 candidates debating all at once, or working in shifts like coal miners, would ruin the networks and drive the populace into coma.

So, the networks begged for a change in the law and, in June 1960, Congress suspended the section that required free time for everybody. Delegations from the networks met staff aides of Mr Nixon and Mr Kennedy and, eventually, four television debates were set up between the two of them. The first, it was later concluded, was the decisive one. Kennedy, who'd been chided for his youth, even by ex-President Truman of his own party, looked as pink as a choirboy, was as poised and knowledgeable as an elder statesman addressing his loyal republic. Mr Nixon, who made the mistake of wearing no make-up, was jumpy, addressed Senator Kennedy and had a five o'clock shadow that gave him a menacing Hammer Production look.

Well, the audience for that first debate amazed even the network presidents. It was 70 million people, smaller only than the record television audience for the clinching game of the 1959 baseball championship. The networks were now actually proud to announce that they had sacrificed $2 million worth of advertising revenue in the public interest and in their own interest of being seen once again as Mr Clean.

However, by the fourth debate, the people had had it. There was nothing new to say and there was already a sizeable and voluble part of the populace which hoped there would be no more of them. In fact, there were none. In 1964 or '68 or '72, the candidates decided they would look more presidential standing and speechifying alone rather than side by side but, in 1976, no one was more eager to develop his public exposure than the Democrats 'up from nowhere' candidate, Jimmy Carter of Georgia. President Ford was, perhaps fatally, willing. Mr Carter was humble and surprisingly informed and articulate. President Ford was honest enough to look uncomfortable and he committed a couple of howlers.

But now that John Anderson is hot for public exposure, he wants to be seen debating alongside Mr Carter and Mr Reagan. Mr Reagan is willing to debate with one or both or either. 'Sure,' he said, 'if the League of Women Voters, the sponsor of the first debate, says that John Anderson is a viable candidate, I'll be there.'

President Carter, on the other hand, has decided that if he debates with both Reagan and Anderson together, he will look less like a president and more like an equal – a golfer in a three-way tie in a sudden-death play-off. It could be his first and fatal tactical blunder leading, indeed, to sudden death.

This transcript was typed from a recording of the original BBC broadcast (© BBC) and not copied from an original script. Because of the risk of mishearing, the BBC cannot vouch for its complete accuracy.

Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC

Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.