We don't really have presidential debates today; we have a kind of meaningless political performance art: a recitation of talking points choreographed to avoid any risk.
In the 2004 election, the Bush-Kerry debate rules ran a full 32 pages of do's and don'ts, including one rule that ordered the moderator to stop any candidate who dared to depart from the script to reference someone in the audience.
The candidates also were ordered to turn over for inspection "all such paper and any pens or pencils with which a candidate may wish to take notes during the debate." Pen and pencils. Talk about the vital stuff of democracy!
In telling contrast, the ground rules for the most famous debates in U.S. history were outlined in a two-sentence letter from Abraham Lincoln to Stephen Douglas, his opponent in the 1858 race for the U.S. Senate in Illinois. After a prompt exchange of letters, they settled on the terms for seven debates. Lincoln insisted only that "I wish perfect reciprocity, and no more." There was no talk of pens and pencils.