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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 4, 2007

Let’s raise the level of discourse
Debate is germane to democracy.

The ancient Roman government on which our democracy was, in part, founded was known for the eloquent oratory and reasoned debate of its senators.

The patriots who fought for their own government in America were frequently embroiled in debate. Their ideas were sharpened and strengthened in the thrust and parry of debate.

"Yesterday," John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776, "the greatest question was decided which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps never was nor will be decided among men. A resolution was passed without one dissenting colony, ‘that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.’"

Many debates were to follow after the Revolution was won. The debates that characterized the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 resulted in compromises that have influenced our country to this day.

Orators who followed, like Daniel Webster, gave us words in the midst of debate that have lived on to shape our values. The champion of a strong national government, Webster addressed the United States Senate in the great debate on the Union and the Constitution in 1850. He urged the acceptance of compromise to help preserve the Union.

Webster’s words, "Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!" inspired many Northern soldiers during the Civil War.

Webster had honed his skills of debate in his work as a lawyer. Justice in our country depends on the skill of debate as a means of discovering truth. Our legal system pits the lawyers from the prosecution against the lawyers from the defense. Each marshals witnesses and evidence, and speaks with eloquence for his or her side, leaving a jury or judge to decide.

Such legal debates not only decide the fate of individuals, but can also shape the course of a nation. We can all recall, because they are often echoed today, the views expressed in the 1925 trial of John T. Scopes. One of America's first labor lawyers, Clarence Seward Darrow, defended Scopes’s right to teach evolution in Tennessee schools. He was pitted against the Peerless Leader of the Democratic Party, three times a candidate for president, William Jennings Bryan. Bryan’s belief in religious fundamentalism and his ability to express it, carried the day but, all these decades later, the views of Darrow are still echoed.

Perhaps the most telling American debates are those between political candidates. The most famous may be the 1858 debates — seven of them in seven different Illinois cities— in the Senate race between incumbent Democrat Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, running for the newly-formed Republican Party. The two debated the extension of slavery into free territory. Huge crowds gathered at each venue to hear the deep bass voice of Douglas, grown husky with fatigue, and the high, penetrating voice of Lincoln.

At the end of the grueling campaign, Douglas won the seat. But Lincoln’s words endure. While Douglas had ignored the moral issue of slavery, Lincoln had regarded slavery "as a moral, social, and political evil."

Lincoln had fired the campaign's first volley in his speech accepting the Republicans’ nomination: "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other""

The debates had made Lincoln a national figure and, at the Republican national convention in 1860, "the Railsplitter" secured the nomination for president. The rest is history.

A century later, debates were still shaping national politics — this time through the relatively new medium of television. In 1960, four debates were televised between the young Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, and Republican Richard Nixon, vice president under the popular President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The debates are largely credited with demonstrating Kennedy's self-assurance, giving him an edge in a close race.

Locally, this election year, the Republican challengers for Guilderland Town Board have been pushing the Democratic incumbents to debate. We urge them to pick up the gauntlet. Let’s raise the level of discourse.

Our pages in the last few weeks have been filled with letters from candidates and their supporters in both parties that are mired in pettiness. We’ve run articles on those allegations that have risen to the level of issues — ranging from charges of conflict of interest to court battles over entitlement to be on the ballot.

Next week, we will run interviews with the candidates, asking their views on substantive issues. Our goal is to cut through the rhetoric and give voters solid information on the candidates, to see whose views they support.

But nothing shows the measure of a man like a debate. A fairly-run debate, televised from Town Hall, would give constituents a valuable way to gauge the candidates — to hear their views as well as to get a sense of their character.

One of the Republican candidates has asked The Enterprise, as the paper of record for Guilderland, to run a debate at Town Hall. We’ve received many such requests over the years, from different parties in the various towns we cover. Our answer is always the same: We cover debates, we don’t run them. We are observers, questioners, and recorders, not players.

Maggie Moehringer, with the League of Women Voters of Albany County, has told us that, while the date is late, the league is still willing to coordinate a debate for the Guilderland town board candidates. We’ve witnessed well-run debates by the non-partisan, nonprofit league and have found it does a good job. A debate is different than a meet-the-candidates night being sponsored by one of the neighborhood associations in Guilderland. While any chance to talk with candidates is valuable, it can’t substitute for a town-wide forum focused on the issues.

Debate at its best is a tool to find the truth. We should use it.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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