First TV duel | Historian: “Biden and Trump have to be extremely careful”


Lerato Khumalo

The election campaign in the USA begins early, Donald Trump and Joe Biden compete against each other on TV. Historian Ronald D. Gerste explains what there is to win and what there is to lose.

Donald Trump wants to oust Joe Biden from the White House, and now the opponents are facing off in TV debates. What influence can such a superlative TV event have on voters? What should the candidates avoid at all costs? And since when have there been TV debates in election campaigns for the American presidency?

Ronald D. Gerste, historian and author of the recently published book “America’s Presidential Elections. From George Washington to Donald Trump”, answers these questions.

t-online: Mr. Gerste, what significance do the TV debates between Joe Biden and Donald Trump have in the fight for the White House? For the majority of Americans, the political fronts are probably already clear.

Ronald D. Barley: Every little detail counts. Yes, the candidates’ political programs are widely known, and yes, a large proportion of Americans have probably already decided on Biden or Trump. But not all of them. That’s exactly what it’s about. That’s why Biden and Trump have to be extremely careful.

So that no mishap happens to you during the TV debate?

Exactly. It is precisely the anecdotal aspect of a TV debate that sticks with people. In 1980, during a TV debate, the incumbent US President Jimmy Carter wanted to accuse his Republican challenger Ronald Reagan of cutting social benefits. What did Reagan do? The Republican replied with a smile: “There you go again.” With that, Reagan had all the laughs on his side – and won the debate.

What will be important now?

Joe Biden must not have any slip-ups, he can’t afford that under any circumstances. But the mockery of his problems finding the right words is unfair. Biden suffered from a minor speech impediment as a young man. Trump, on the other hand, should not go overboard with half-truths and lies. His adherence to facts leaves a lot to be desired anyway, and if he now says something that large parts of the population immediately recognize as untrue, he has a big problem.

Ronald D. Barleyborn in Magdeburg in 1957, holds a doctorate in medicine and is a historian. He lives near the American capital Washington, DC, and writes regularly as a correspondent for German-language media. Gerste is also the author of numerous books on US history, including “Understanding America. History, politics and culture of the USA“. Gerste’s latest book “America’s presidential elections. From George Washington to Donald Trump“.

With the moderators Dana Bash and Jake Tapper from “CNN” there are also two experienced journalists who will be paying attention to the first TV duel.

Exactly. They are old hands in the political business. They are just waiting for one of them to say something wrong or nonsense. Unfortunately there won’t be an audience, but that’s what Biden and Trump have agreed on. If the two manage to present their program reasonably well, there won’t be any major swings in the polls. I don’t expect any sensations in terms of content either. But what if one of them slips up? Then it will be exciting.

The first TV debate between two presidential candidates in the history of the United States was also exciting in 1960. Republican Richard Nixon ran with John F. Kennedy against the star of the Democrats – and was widely considered to have lost the TV debate by a landslide. Why?

Nixon had a really bad day. He had just been released from hospital and was in poor health. Like his advisors, Nixon had also underestimated that a television appearance was not just about content, but also about the visual. The medium of television was still new for politicians, especially in its mass distribution. In addition to his ailing condition and poor posture overall, Nixon had also largely avoided wearing make-up. Sweat poured down his face in the face of the hot spotlight.

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Ronald D. Gerste: The historian and physician is the author of numerous books. (Source: Jacqueline Gerste)

Kennedy made Nixon sweat even more.

You could say that. Kennedy looked dazzling and was also well prepared. He wore a dark suit that drew attention, while Nixon seemed to blend into the background of the studio in his light outfit. In addition, Nixon had to agree with Kennedy in principle on most of Kennedy’s statements, which did not make things any easier for him. Opinion polls later confirmed that 43 percent of viewers saw Kennedy as the “winner” of the TV debate, compared to just 23 percent of Nixon.