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Now Play Nice, Children

John B. Carnett
Popular Science via Getty Images

There was no moderator of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. There was a timekeeper, usually some respected town elder in Alton, Freeport or Galesburg, Ill., who would keep track of how long a candidate could speak, then say something like, "Thank you, Mr. Lincoln. Your turn now, Sen. Douglas," and vice versa.

But there was no moderator. Each candidate spoke in turn. They asked each other questions directly. They could accuse each other of being wrong, or not telling the truth, face to face, and did.

That was 1858, of course. But I wouldn't mind seeing The Commission On Presidential Debates try at least one debate with no moderator.

One of the candidates for president said this week that he'd like that, but it's not a partisan idea. It's been suggested for years. Why not let the candidates for president actually debate? Ask each other questions, and shape their own arguments, with only a timekeeper between them.

It's a format that would draw less attention to questions from a moderator, and focus more on candidates. If they duck a question from their opponent, the public will see that. If a candidate tries to shout over their opponent, people will hear that. If a candidate says something demonstrably untrue, their opponent can call them on it, face to face; and perhaps get called in turn to answer for any of their own evasions or untruths. It might force candidates to engage with and debate each other's arguments, not just use questions to soar into their own rehearsed replies.

Anyone watching a real debate on those terms may get a glimpse of how a candidate for president might actually deal with a belligerent head of state in a summit meeting, or an unrelenting antagonist in Congress.

Who might be a timekeeper? Maybe the presidents of the universities where the debates will be held.

Or Kenny Bayless, the boxing referee, who tells fighters before a match, "What I say you must obey."

Or Jim Joyce, the baseball umpire; I like the idea of saying James Joyce will be the timekeeper of a presidential debate. Or a respected historian, on the order of David McCullough, James McPhearson, or Mary Beth Norton.

Or Carla Hayden, the new Librarian of Congress and former Chief Librarian of Chicago. I'm sure she'd know how to tell people to stop talking. Or what about Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger? Even a candidate for president would probably pay attention when a man who landed a plane on the Hudson River tells them, "Stay in your seat."

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.