Student’s Blog Aims To Bring More ‘High-Brow’ Perspective to Debates

Now that the presidential debates are over, Yale law student Aaron Zelinksy will have a bit more time to focus on his classroom reading.

Since August, Zelinsky has been posting daily content to The Presidential Debate Blog ( The law student is the editor of and a regular contributor to the blog, which he says he created to promote “more highbrow” discourse about the candidates’ performances than that offered in the popular media and elsewhere.

Zelinsky’s blog has been cited on CNN and C-SPAN, and by the San Francisco Chronicle, the Netherland Press Agency and Zeit (in Germany), among other news sources. It was also selected by the Library of Congress to be included in the Election 2008 Web Archive. His live blogs during the two most recent presidential debates each drew more than 15,000 hits.

Zelinsky recently took a break from studying and blogging to talk about his interest in presidential debates. Here is what we learned.

Student orator: While he was a Yale College student (Class of 2006) and member of the University’s debate team, Zelinsky learned that 2004 presidential candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry had been students in an oratory and rhetoric class taught by the University’s former debate coach Rollin G. Osterweis. He decided to research the course, and discovered all of Osterweis’ handwritten class notes in Yale’s Manuscripts and Archives Department. An article he wrote about the course for The Hartford Courant led to calls from The New York Times and Le Monde, among other publications, which quoted him about the class.

Contributing commentary: When he entered the Law School in the fall of 2007, Zelinsky began watching the debates during the presidential primaries. He wrote another piece for The Hartford Courant calling for a reform of the debate format. Already a contributor to the Sports Law Blog about athletes’ use of performance-enhancing drugs, Zelinsky began to consider creating his own blog. “Blogging is big in the legal community, and I got a lot of exposure to it at the Law School,” he says. ” I started thinking, ‘I could do this.’”

Doing homework: Zelinsky invited two former debaters to become contributing editors: Yale classmate Cleve Doty, now a law student at the University of Chicago, and Mark Samburg, a student at Harvard Law School who had been a debater at Brandeis University. “Then I read a lot of scholarly materials about presidential debates and I identified about 20 of the best scholars in the country on the subject,” says the law student. These scholars - in fields as diverse as classical rhetoric, political science, communications and history - have contributed to Zelinsky’s blog since the launch on Aug. 1.

“These guest posts have gone a long way toward promoting the kind of discourse we’re interested in,” says Zelinsky. “I think what differentiates our blog from a lot of the discussion that is out there is that we do our homework.”

Before posting an Aug. 30 blog predicting how Sarah Palin would do in her debate against Joseph Biden, for example, Zelinsky watched videos of her past debates from her gubernatorial run in Alaska. His guess - which many political pundits would consider accurate post-debate - was that she would be a formidable debater who would speak mainly in generalities.

Neither Democrat nor Republican: Zelinsky takes great pride in the fact that The Presidential Debate Blog is non-partisan. “That is the most important feature of the blog,” he says. “Unlike a lot of television programs where we see talking heads plugging the candidates of the party with which they are affiliated, we work really hard to maintain objectivity.”

Zelinsky says his own choice for president will never be made public on his blog.

For fun: Zelinsky, Samburg, Doty and the guest bloggers have analyzed topics ranging from debate formats to the role of moderators. But periodically, they offer “less academic” commentary, such as “The 10 Worst Lines of the Debate,” “The Top 10 One-Liners” and “The Top 10 Presidential Debate One Liners of All Time.” (For his all-time favorite “zingers,” see his blog entry for Aug. 25.)

Best of the best: Zelinsky has watched or read a transcript of every televised presidential debate since the 1960s.

He contends that Ronald Reagan was the “undefeated heavyweight champion of presidential debating,” while Bill Clinton is the “king of the town hall debate format.”

“Of course it is not possible, but I would love to be able to see Reagan and Clinton debate each other,” he comments.

More often than not, says the law student, presidential debates are lost rather than won. One example, he says, was in 1992 when George H. Bush looked at

his watch as Clinton began to address an audience member’s question about the economy.

“Sometimes the best offense is a good defense,” claims Zelinsky, “although that doesn’t always make good viewing.”

What’s next: Zelinsky plans to continue daily posts to his blog for several days after the Nov. 4 election. After that, posting will be intermittent.

“This race is the most significant in recent times, certainly in my lifetime,” he comments, noting that it is the first presidential contest that entails issues of age, gender and race. “It’s a critical time for the country and a critical snapshot of the history of America. I’m proud to play a small part in it.”

Beyond blogging: Zelinsky, a New Haven native, is the fourth member of his family to attend Yale. His parents and twin brother are graduates. As an undergraduate, Zelinsky founded and directed the New Haven Urban Debate League, which engaged underserved New Haven students in the art of debate. His recent jobs include working as a deckhand on a sailboat in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as a hiking guide in the Negev/Sinai desert and as a foreign law clerk for the chief justice of the Israeli Supreme Court.

He foresees a future career in policymaking and has not ruled out politics. He may return to daily blogging again during the 2012 presidential election.

“We’ve had a great site and I would love to keep it going,” Zelinsky says. “It would be great to have people congregate again in four years.”

— By Susan Gonzalez

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