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During most election years, the month of August brings the unofficial end of summer and the unofficial beginning of American voters paying closer attention to the presidential elections.
The next two weeks will have two big events: the start of the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 17 and the Republican National Convention on Aug. 24.
But perhaps the biggest event is slated for Sept. 29: the first presidential debate at Case Western University in Cleveland.
In the absence of traditional campaigning during the pandemic, it’s one of the most significant opportunities for voters to hear from both candidates—despite a rippling undercurrent suggesting that Biden should refuse.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman urged Biden to refuse to debate unless Trump agrees to release his tax returns and allow a fact-checking team to report any false statements uttered during the debate.
Former Bill Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart argued Biden should refuse to debate because he says Trump doesn’t follow the rules or tell the truth. A few days later, The New York Times ran another opinion piece: “Let’s Scrap the Presidential Debates.”
Biden says he’s eager to face-off with Trump, and voters ought to hear from both candidates. Some pundits speculate Biden supporters are concerned about how the candidate will perform under pressure, after a long series of gaffes and moments of apparent confusion.
Biden bristled when a reporter asked if he had undergone a cognitive assessment: No, he said: “Why the hell would I take a test?” Biden said he looked forward to Americans assessing him for themselves. (A story in WORLD shows how both candidates face scrutiny over physical and mental fitness, and how it’s a question that likely will follow both men until Election Day.)
Debates have proven important in the past: In 1984, President Ronald Reagan struggled in his first debate against Democrat Walter Mondale. Reagan was 74 at the time, and speculation swirled about whether his age was affecting his mental sharpness.
Reagan rallied in the second debate, when the moderator finally asked the question: Given his age and the stress of the presidency, did Reagan have any doubts about whether he was still up to the job?
Not at all, Reagan replied. “And I want you to know also that I will not make age an issue in this campaign,” he quipped. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Even Mondale, then 56, smiled and applauded. On Election Day, Reagan became the second president in history to carry 49 out of 50 states.
The political dynamics are very different in 2020, and a debate or two probably won’t deliver a landslide victory to either candidate, but the reality remains: Voters want to see and hear from candidates for themselves.
A post-script to the Reagan era offers a reminder that while discussions of mental fitness often involve jokes and levity, it’s actually a serious issue that calls for more sobriety than scorn.
Reagan completed his second term, and went home to California. Six years later, he wrote a letter informing the American public he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. He was hopeful, and he remained active, but Reagan was saying goodbye.
He thanked Americans for “the great honor of allowing me to serve as your President.” He spoke of dying whenever the Lord called him home: “I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead.”
Reagan lived another decade.
But even as he began to falter, he still played golf and took walks in the park. The Toledo Blade reported a 1997 encounter with Reagan relayed by Rostik Dennenburg.
The young man recalled walking in a California park with his grandfather, Yakov Ravin, a Ukrainian immigrant. He said they spotted the former president in the park, and his grandfather stopped to thank him for all he did to help bring freedom to people who lived in the former Soviet Union.
Reagan’s reply was simple: “Yes, that was my job.”