Newt Minow’s office is like a guide to modern US politics. The walls are cluttered with framed letters and photographs signed by presidents and candidates, with more crowding every available surface. Pride of place goes to a corner crammed with memorabilia connected with John F. Kennedy, who appointed Mr Minow chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in 1961.
By Hal Weitzman in Chicago
At 82, Mr Minow remains as gripped by politics as ever, yet his favourite part of the presidential election is still to come. Since the first televised presidential debate in 1960, the Chicago lawyer has been intimately involved in every one of the debates – first, as a Kennedy campaign staffer, then in collaboration with the League of Women Voters and finally as vice-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, a position he still holds.
Next week, the bipartisan commission is due formally to invite the candidates to attend three presidential debates, and their running mates to attend one debate. Mr Minow is eagerly looking forward to the first encounter, which is scheduled for September 26. “I think they’ll be better this year,” he says. “They’ll be less canned and more spontaneous.”
Although the details of the format will be announced next week, Mr Minow indicates there will be some changes from the past. “We hope to have the candidates questioning each other – that’s the first time that’s been done. We’ll have them seated at a round table with a moderator, rather than a panel of journalists.”
John McCain, the Republican candidate, is known to favour a “town hall”-style debate that his campaign senses could improve his chances against the rousing rhetoric of Barack Obama, the Democrat. “We’ll have one town hall,” says Mr Minow. “We always have one town hall.”
In spite of the growth of the internet and “YouTube politics”, he believes the presidential debate still has power. In 2004, about 62m Americans watched the first debate, up from 46m in 2000 although less than the 80m who tuned in in 1980.
Mr Minow is less keen on the primary debates, which are organised by the TV networks. “The debates in the fall are like the Super Bowl. The ones in the spring are like the try-outs, where people gradually get eliminated,” he says. “Overall they’re good, but some of them suffered from the journalists who participated,” he says. “Some candidates had to fight with the moderator for equal time.”
Though he wants to ensure the debate format is as fair as possible, there’s no doubt who Mr Minow will be cheering for. “Barack is a 21st-century Jack Kennedy,” he says.
One of the photos in his office shows him with Mr Obama, and bears a warm dedication from the politician to his “dear friend and mentor”. Mr Minow is senior counsel at Sidley Austin, the Chicago law firm that gave Mr Obama a summer placement when he graduated from Harvard and assigned Michelle Robinson, a young lawyer, to be his mentor.
At the end of the summer, Mr Obama came to Mr Minow’s office to tell him he was turning down the permanent job Sidley had offered him for a life in politics – and that he and Michelle were getting married.
Mr Minow’s comparison of Mr Obama with Kennedy is not made lightly. He worked on Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 and 1956 campaigns, in the latter attempting unsuccessfully to persuade the candidate to take Kennedy as his running mate.
He was 34 when President Kennedy made him the youngest chair of the FCC. Though he stayed for just 30 months, Mr Minow was hugely controversial, famously attacking US television as a “vast wasteland” of frivolity, sex and violence. “Television was still fairly new and I thought we were wasting enormous opportunities for education,” he says.
He oversaw the creation of public programming in the US, as well as the launch of the first communications satellite. “I told Kennedy that communications satellites are more important than sending men into space,” he says. “Communications satellites send ideas, and they will last longer than men.”
But Mr Minow – who was the subject of more news coverage than any other federal official apart from Kennedy himself – was loathed by many in the industry for his perceived elitism and prudishness. The creators of Gilligan’s Island, the iconic 1960s sitcom, ironically named the boat in the series the SS Minnow, a barb at his criticisms.
Nowadays, he says he takes it as a compliment. “I thought it was a pretty good show.”