From The Presidential Debate of October 16, 2012 AHA Roundtable, a Perspectives Online extra from the October 2012 issue of Perspectives on History

Stephen Crane Rides Again

Patty Limerick, October 2012

Patty LimerickNostalgia for an imagined golden age does not enhance a historian’s job performance.

And yet election-year debates pull me off track and into a deep swamp of nostalgia.  Within minutes of a debate’s start, I am lost in yearning for a past era when candidates made their cases in substantive, cogent, and thorough ways.

By a mysterious numerology, we have, as a society, determined that “two minutes” is the right unit of time for an aspiring office-holder to take an enormously complicated issue and squish it into utterly improbable simplicity.  It does not help that at least thirty seconds of those two-minute units must be devoted to flailing at one’s opponent, since energetic walloping of the rival stands as the key criterion used by pundits, both on camera and on social media, to distinguish winner from loser.

It is easy enough to claim that we have given a silly form of contest a significant degree of power to determine our nation’s future.  But it is considerably less easy to find the golden age I am yearning for when these waves of nostalgia overpower me.  Anyone setting out to find the era of civil, productive, substantive electioneering, sustained through a whole campaign, has embarked on a long quest.
Some of the traditional forms of rhetorical dreariness seem to be gaining a new prominence in recent years.  In much of the first debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, eloquence took a rough blow from the candidates’ passion for statistics. Numbers flew back and forth, and the souls of American citizens sagged under a practice that University of Colorado engineering professor Joe Ryan has christened “numerical banter.”

The core force for dreariness in our 2012 debate cycle is, however, a practice with much more power in American cultural history.  Watching the presidential and vice presidential debates, the Western American historian cannot avoid the sensation that she has watched this movie many times before.  Two men stand up in a public space, whether town hall or main street, and challenge each other’s manliness in ritualized, posturing performance.  They hold their ground; they stare each other down; and they do not retreat, though—blessedly—their weapons in 2012 are words, and not firearms.

“The time has come for me to settle with you, and I’m goin’ to do it my own way, and loaf along with no interferin’,” one such contestant says to another in a classic Western showdown.  This quotation would surely strike home for Jim Lehrer, the stymied moderator of the first presidential debate this year, whose piteous effort at “interferin’” will forever haunt those of us who sometimes take the role of moderator.

And yet the source of this quotation puts a spotlight on one zone of cheer in 2012. The quotation comes from Stephen Crane’s famed short story, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” (1898),” in which two perennially contentious Western rivals, Scratchy Wilson and Jack Porter, are forced to curtail their fun when a respectable woman arrives in town.

Moderating the debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan, Martha Raddatz (with the excellent Western credential of having been born in Idaho Falls, Idaho) brought order to chaos with a degree of success that Jim Lehrer never approached.  Last night, moderating the second debate between the presidential candidates, Candy Crowley kept up this exciting new tradition, of constraining manly contestation and keeping a stalwart focus on the serious and substantive issues raised by the audience’s questions.

Near the end of Stephen Crane’s story, the two main characters acknowledge their defeat.

“‘Is this the lady?’ [Wilson] asked.

“‘Yes, this is the lady,’ answered Potter.

“‘Well,’” said Wilson, at last slowly, ‘I s’pose it’s all off now.’”

When they met in Denver, the two presidential candidates were both equally oblivious to their location.  But what a promising rhetorical move they both passed up:  neither acknowledged the fading appeal of the empty rituals of partisan showdowns, and neither celebrated the West’s role as the home of the second chance.

There will a third chance on Monday.

Patty Limerick is professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder and vice president, AHA Teaching Division.