The Children’s Hour: Watching the First Presidential Debate of 2020

I am one hundred years old and first voted in the Presidential election of 1944, while stationed with the Army Air Forces in the Central Pacific. I did this by mail, of course, and recall that this privilege was heavily shared by my fellow-G.I.s. Since then, I have written more than once about the singular pleasures and trappings of voting, but today a particular part of this has come strongly to mind.

I am thinking of the evening of Monday, September 26, 1960, when my wife and I allowed our almost-twelve-year-old older daughter, Callie, to stay up late and watch the debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. She listened raptly, of course, and her mother and I tried to imagine her feelings as she sensed that she was now a participant in something complex, historic, and profoundly American. I can’t remember any conversation from that occasion but almost feel our silent collective emotions of the moment. This was a political event, to be sure, but the fact of the debate itself, and not its content, was what most engaged us. This, by the way, was the very first televised debate between two Presidential candidates.

I voted Democratic, but what I know for certain is that this significant familial sharing was happening all across the country in countless thousands of Republican, as well as Democratic, households, and with the same sense of common pride and excitement. This family event, quadrennially renewed down the decades, has mattered to millions.

We are larger today, by a hundred and fifty million, than we were in 1960, and we live in a different world, but I believe that something like the scene I’ve described was happening in hundreds of thousands or millions of households on Tuesday night, where it was grotesquely shattered by the actions of President Donald Trump. (Someone’s grandchild, my wife learned from a friend on Facebook, left the room in tears.) None of us can be sure now that the precious rite and process will ever be restored.


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