When the debates began

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Donald Trump
Donald Trump

I watched the Kennedy-Nixon debate at the Henderson family home in Lebanon, Ohio.

That started it all.

Ron Henderson taught English at the seminary in Cincinnati I was attending. I don’t recall why we drove to Ron’s home then. But I’m sure his mom had fixed a nice dinner for the professor and graduate students.

We all rooted for the vice president then. Professors and students at the school were mostly all Republicans.

Now here it is more than half a century later and the country is gearing up for a presidential election. Barak Obama is finishing his second term in office. This year’s race couldn’t be more different than the Kennedy-Nixon election.

Real estate tycoon Donald Trump leads the Republicans. Trump has party leaders in a turmoil. In debates he not only is given to crude, insulting remarks about others with him on the stage. The operative phrase is “loose canon.”

He takes positions that don’t square with GOP orthodoxy. New stories in the major papers tell how party leaders can’t figure out how to stop Trump. None of his opponents show the gravitas that could take him down to size.

In today’s Washington Post, veteran political reporter Dan Balz notes that so far no clear winner has emerged. Worse, the performance of most of the candidates, arguing and interrupting one another, show the Republicans big losers.

Trump’s defenders note that he seems to have brought new voters to the GOP. But interviews with Trump supporters reveal a deep dissatisfaction with the direction has been going.

News accounts don’t tell us how much this dissatisfaction has to do with having a black man in the White House. After all, politicians who dominate the Congress these days are conservative Republicans whose main job seems to be to block every proposal Obama puts forth.

So we’ve got a federal government that doesn’t work. Which brings me back to that 1960 presidential debate. In office, first Kennedy and later Nixon, both men sought accommodation with congressional leaders in the other party.

To be sure, the country never got to see the potential for good of both presidencies. Kennedy’s life was cut short by assassination; Nixon’s second term by impeachment.

Neither Kennedy nor Nixon took extreme positions. I wasn’t the only person not embarrassed for the country to see either one elected. Which doesn’t mean that I condoned Nixon’s second-term mischief known as Watergate.

By 1972, I had become a Democrat and voted for George McGovern. I didn’t like Lyndon Johnson but voted for him over Republican Barry Goldwater. During election years, I find myself remembering the candidates and how my own political views have changed.

During the 30 years I wrote editorials for the morning paper, I had scores of chances to interview candidates for state and national office. That gave me quite an education in politics.

I haven’t always voted for Democrats. The editorial board I served on tried to endorse the candidates who were the most capable and responsible. Regardless of party.

I still think long-time Republican Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana would have made a great president. I wrote the endorsements for his re-election to the senate campaigns.

I suppose the Hendersons in southern Ohio are still Republicans, although I’m sure the parents have long since died. Meantime, most of our friends vote Democratic, I’m sure. But every time a presidential election rolls around, I find myself recalling that drive to Lebanon, Ohio, and watching the first presidential debate live on television.

I’m thankful for the debates. They’ve made it possible for a voter to take the better measure of each candidate and to cast a more informed vote. I must add you still need to read the newspaper editorials.

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