White Men Interrupting White Men During Presidential Debates Is An American Tradition
Tuesday night's vice presidential debate was characterized by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC as "contentious and honestly incomprehensible," thanks to the huge degree of interruptions and cross-talk. It's true. Several times, all three people on stage talked over one another. "Those of us watching on television had no idea what was being said, because not only were both men speaking over one another, the moderator was speaking over both of the candidates," Maddow said during post-debate coverage. Sadly, interruptions in presidential or vice presidential debates are nothing new.
First, a closer look at Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine's performances. You'll have a hard time parsing out their full thoughts, because "CROSSTALK" is littered throughout the transcript. Kaine spent a good part of the debate quoting Donald Trump's more controversial phrases of the election and interrupting. Pence didn't respond in quite the same fiery manner, but rather looked down and and shook his head throughout much of the debate. He too went on the attack, though. Mr. Pence said to his rival, "the campaign of Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine has been an avalanche of insults" when Kaine pointed out the "insult-driven selfish ‘me first’ style of Donald Trump."
That all sounds pretty bad. But even though the exchange was rather acrimonious, it was not the first time there were interruptions. In 2012, President Obama and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney interrupted each other frequently. At one point, Obama even said, "I’m used to being interrupted." As Deborah Tannen for The New York Times pointed out, moderator Jim Lehrer was criticized for not interrupting. And then the moderators later in the election (Martha Raddatz and Candy Crowley) began to cut off the candidates, for fear that they be labeled as losing control of the conversation. A study later called Crowley's time moderating "the interruption debate," and said there were about 1.4 per minute.
Back in 2008, when Obama was facing off against GOP nominee John McCain, the interruptions again were a topic of conversation — this time in an online analysis of the first debate for The Washington Post. Associate editor Robert Kaiser chatted with readers from around the country. Several of them brought up interruptions, and each one had a difference of opinion on who did so the most. One reader from San Diego asked, "I noticed that Obama often interrupted McCain, while McCain rarely interrupted him. How do you think first-time viewers would see this — being rude, or being firm?" Another said, "McCain kept interrupting," and a third asked if in a formal debate it was appropriate to do so.
Even before the Obama years — in what was arguably a less divided time in American politics — news reports and transcripts speak to interruptions. Pres. George W. Bush did so in 2004 at least once while debating Democratic nominee John Kerry, and Bush and Al Gore, 2000's Democratic candidate, also argued a bit over interruptions (funnily enough, also with Lehrer). All the way back in 1992, the vice presidential debate saw some. Gore, then Bill Clinton's running mate, was up against VP Dan Quayle, and according to The Times, they "regularly interrupted each other with putdowns and gibes."
In the end, the most interesting thing to consider going forward is whether past moderators have also been talked over. That might would require further study, but given the amount of time Kaine and Pence spoke over Elaine Quijano, it might be worth an academic paper or two.