Football or Politics?

October 22, 2012

Rick Kogan

Credit Alex Brandon

 

 

Big night tonight for America, for Chicago.

At 8 p.m. tonight the choice is yours. You can watch football, the game between the Bears and the Detroit Lions or you can watch that other game called politics, and tune into the final round of the presidential debates.

Let me take you back to 1858. The country is moving ever closer to disunion, and two politicians from Illinois attract the attention of a nation. From August 21 until October 15, Stephen Douglas battled Abraham Lincoln in face to face debates around the state. The prize they sought was a seat in the Senate. Lincoln challenged Douglas to a war of ideas. Douglas took the challenge.

In Ottawa and Freeport, Jonesboro and Charleston, Galesburg and Quincy and Alton they debated. Spectators came from across Illinois and other stats. They arrived by horseback and buggy, by train and canal-boat, wagon and on foot. Thousands came and swelled the small cities. They shouted questions. They cheered wildly, applauded, laughed. Newspaper reporters from across the country jotted their notes. The final debate took place in Alton and today bronze statues of Douglas and Lincoln stand to commemorate the event. Lost under history’s dust is the outcome.

Neither Lincoln nor Douglas won a popular election that fall. Under rules then governing Senate elections, voters cast their ballots for local legislators and they chose the winner. The Democrats won a majority of district contests and returned Douglas to Washington. But the nation saw a rising star in the defeated Lincoln. The entire drama that unfolded in Illinois would be played on the national stage only two years later with the highest of all possible stakes.

A century later two men running for president did come here. John Kennedy and Richard Nixon came to Studio One at WBBM-Channel 2 in1960 to participate in the first televised presidential debate. Those listening on radio thought Nixon the winner. Those watching on TV thought otherwise, thought Nixon menacing under the lights. There is no way to underestimate the importance of this debate. From that night on, everything in politics and television changed forever. No longer would substance be the measure of a politician. It would be all about style. The 1960 presidential election was, as almost all of you know, won narrowly by Kennedy. The Bears, as even the most rabid fan might have forgotten, would finish the 1960 with a record of 5-6-1.

Enjoy the game, whichever one you choose to watch.