How Bill Clinton and MTV invented the once-thrilling, now-meaningless town hall debate

Getty Images

The audience in tonight's town hall-style presidential debate will have been selected, as it has for more than 20 years, by an independent polling agency. A crowd of undecided voters don’t particularly resemble the citizens of many American small towns, particularly those who would favor such directly democratic process of actual town meetings. Undecided voters in this election are, studies show, politically apathetic, less interested in major issues, and unlikely to keep up with the news. One would imagine some will feel less undecided since the footage of Trump equating fame with permission to sexually assault was leaked (though we haven’t yet seen the effect of the scandal on the polls). It will probably go awfully for Trump: Since the first town hall-style debate, the format has favored candidates who are good at pretending they’re up on stage accidentally and have nothing to sell you at all.

By the time Bill Clinton strode onstage for the first town hall-style presidential debate in history—hands in pockets, aw-shucks overbite tracking the camera—he’d been exhaustively prepared in the public art of holding casual conversations about serious things. For more than a year, he’d been taking questions on small stages from pre-selected audiences on live television. It was his specialty, his campaign’s entire media strategy, to play to his empathetic manner and populist charm. This was 1992, the same year The Real World put seven people together in a house in San Francisco and encouraged them to start getting real.


Clinton had gotten fairly real himself that year, answering questions from live audiences in New Hampshire (about commuter train trouble) and at MTV’s New York Studio (HIV, third-party candidates, the politics of his decision to not inhale). It was natural, then, that his campaign would suggest the second presidential debate be held in this format, with candidates taking questions directly: a community forum, a town hall. After all, who could possibly be more excited to meet the people than a guy running on a platform of podunk relatability and cool dad appeal?

And for weeks before the second 1992 presidential debate—which was “unlike any presidential debate in history” up to that point, as the moderator would say—Bill Clinton practiced. While other presidential hopefuls ran through verbal rebuttals from behind a podium Clinton’s staff blocked out a grid on a practice stage, as if he were rehearsing to star in a play. Like other campaigns they used fake camera marks and doubles for his opponents; unlike their competitors they focused on body language rather than stump speeches. During the debate, later considered by some to have clinched the election, Bush appeared annoyed and glanced at his watch; Clinton locked eyes with the crowd. One journalist compared him, favorably, to a televangelist.

More than two decades later, the pseudo-unscripted town hall remains a staple of the election cycle, and like reality television, at its most satisfying it’s a dramatic improvisation on a well-defined script. Donald Trump has been coached by Chris Christie on how to pull off this particular magic trick tonight at the debates—as former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani told the Washington Post recently, Christie, who has more than a hundred town halls under his belt, has been attempting to teach the Republican nominee a little something about contorting his body into positions one might mistake as sincere. Given the last 48 hours he’ll need all the manufactured charisma and empathy he can possibly muster.

Bill Clinton’s campaign spearheaded the first presidential town hall debate, but shortly after the debate commission institutionalized it; it reinvigorates attention spans during extended election cycles and, the thinking goes, keeps candidates on their toes. Audiences like it: As Alan Shroeder, a professor at Northwestern who’s written extensively on TV-era debates, told me, the town hall “came out of the era of talk shows,” like Oprah and Phil Donahue, both propelled by the participation (and tension) of live studio audiences.

Pairing candidates directly with undecided voters has an egalitarian and at times meritocratic aura, pulling politicians out from behind the podium and into vaguely volatile situations where they wrestle in real time with citizens outside of the political class. And sure, politicians: They’re just like us, particularly when they accidentally stand awkwardly close to each other or are berated for their religious beliefs. Like any regular human, they occasionally encounter rabid strangers who don’t believe Obama was born in the United States.


But for all the pageantry involved in humanizing its subjects, and the event’s connotations of a smaller, more intimate (not to mention colonial) America, where enlightened people debated the very foundations of democracy on equal footing, town hall debates aren’t very different than others, save for the fact that they privilege candidates like Obama—candidates who above all else are cool.


There are really two stories of the American town hall. One is about men with snow-dusted beards forging American democracy through sheer force of will in frigid ramshackle 17th-century buildings. The other is about the power of television—and, more specifically, of MTV.


The first recorded town hall meeting in America is said to have been brought to order in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1633; as late as the 1800s the city of Boston was still holding open meetings in which registered voters were eligible to debate resolutions vigorously under a single, raucous roof. In some parts of New England, such throwbacks to colonial structures of government remain in effect: If you live in a town of fewer than 6,000 in the state where the Mayflower first landed, you can still make decisions by way of a public forum, where resolutions are debated and voted upon by anyone who happens to be around.

President Carter was the first American president to see these meetings for the opportunity they were—camera-ready salt-of-the-earth citizens with a welcome patina of the nation’s directly democratic past. In 1977 his aides carefully scouted small towns with historic physical halls and a strong local government in which to launch the president’s “meet the people” tour. In the Irish Catholic town center of Clinton, Massachusetts, in a small but stately yellow brick building, Carter answered questions from a largely Irish Catholic community who packed the floor level up to the balcony.


“I want the American people, in three or four years,” Carter told the working-class families chosen by lottery to attend, “not to look on the Federal Government as an enemy, but as a friend.” He would run similar events in cities like Bangor, Maine. They made for great photo-ops, individual citizens jutting out of a crowd, each given a direct line to the president, a modernized pauper gaining audience with the king.


By the time Carter went out to meet the people in America’s town halls, the televised presidential debate was a national event, if not yet the election year staple it’s since become. Since Kennedy and Nixon were first filmed in 1960 and the audience found the latter lacking—sweaty, trollish, unshaven—some presidents, like Johnson, flat-out refused to argue policy in front of the lens.

But by the time Bill Clinton began to campaign in the ‘90s, TV was a bit harder to escape. That campaign, strapped for cash and under pressure from a handful of scandals (an extramarital lover, a shady situation with the Arkansas governor’s draft record) did the cheapest and most effective thing they could think of. They bought a few half-hour slots on prime-time TV, put the guy in a room full of people, and started the cameras rolling, using the same basic “town hall” format that had worked so well for another Southern Dem 20 years prior.


The first town halls in New Hampshire, stocked with independent or democratic voters, were small-scale but effective affairs. But Clinton was the MTV president. It’s possible that without the network’s concerted effort to shoulder into electoral politics the town hall style would never have been pursued so aggressively by his campaign.


News clips from ‘92, when Clinton took questions from 200 young people aged 18 to 24 on the young network, are incredulous. The press was still reeling from the presidential donning sunglasses and playing sax on late-night TV not long before. MTV veejay Tabitha Soren, then 24, moderated the question-and-answer session, where Clinton answered questions about the economy and his astrology sign in front of an edgily partitioned American flag and the channel’s ubiquitous, chunky logo. Moments before taping, producers had realized their audience wasn’t exactly “representative” and rushed to find audience members who weren’t in college. During a break, having his makeup done, Clinton twirled and asked the audience, “How do I look?”


In the eight years Clinton was in office, Soren would interview him many more times, perhaps most famously during another town hall when the then-elected-president was asked whether he preferred boxers or briefs.  Later, Soren would write she felt “just a little bit sorry” for participating in a culture she considered to have degraded the political process, turned it into entertainment—as if that could possibly be the fault of a single network or even the most naive of young anchors. And all this, even Soren’s perspective, can seem quaint now, when Hillary Clinton appears on Between Two Ferns and Obama mocks his own retirement in a televised skit.

Since 1992, when questions were truly unscripted, town hall debates have become steadily more edited, campaigns more adept at coaching their candidates to look good fielding questions in front of a crowd. As for the event itself, it’s a near-complete inversion of the early colonial small-town political system it’s meant to mimic—another piece of political pageantry, notable only for the authenticity it's supposed to invoke.

Share This Story