Are we Americans interested in our politics? Do we know enough about who or what we vote for or against? Most observers would probably answer “no” to those questions, and that may be correct. We do not pay adequate attention to either political events or candidates.

I believe that, but along came these recent Democratic presidential debates and I reined in my thoughts because they seem to be pulling up lame. I must admit my surprise when I researched the number of viewers who watched the debate: 84 million people.

Each televised presidential debate since the first one, 59 years ago, has been both informative and revealing. That first debate, between Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. Jack Kennedy, surprised almost everyone because for the first time we realized television could reveal not only the candidate’s knowledge but also their personalities. 

For the first time we understood the ability of television to expose, to show us reality and, at least to some degree, TV was unlocking more than just the opinions of those who would be our president. We could look them in the eyes.

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Televised debates cannot show us the totality of any candidate but they do provide a keyhole through which we can better view those who are asking for our vote. Debates help to buffer us against of the many clever, well-rehearsed, 30-second political commercials.

When I represented Montana in the U.S. Congress, I appreciated the importance of debates and I enjoyed each of the more than two dozen in which I participated.

Many political researchers have concluded that debates do not change many people’s minds, and that may be, but debates such as these sponsored by the Democrats certainly provide a winnowing process and are valuable to those voters who are still sorting through the candidates to find their favorite.

Consider this: That number, 84 million viewers, is four times more than watch NFL’s Sunday Night football and five times more than view the most-watched TV show, Game of Thrones.

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Pat Williams is a former six-term congressman for Montana. He served from 1979 to 1997. He and his wife, Carol, live in Missoula.


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