Very few people seem to know. Which would be fine, if she weren’t one of the most powerful people in politics. At least on paper. Ms. Brown has, for the past quarter century, been the head of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the bipartisan entity that controls every aspect of the three nationally televised debate-like events held every election cycle. With each cycle, they become a more important part of the electoral process — although they haven’t historically had as much impact on voters as most people think, that very misconception has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, causing them to become more and more popular. Pundits in the 24-hour news cycle obsess endlessly over them as a bellwether of each campaign’s momentum.
Just the two campaigns, that is. Janet H. Brown, year in and year out, makes sure of that. A member of President Reagan’s budget staff, as well as a staffer for Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Missouri) and British Ambassador and former Nixon Defense Secretary Elliot L. Richardson, her identity is otherwise murky. The New York Times ran a Dewar’s Profile-style puff piece on her recently, a bit of fluff which revealed nothing deeper than her TV watching habits. Her present is even more nebulous: emails to her address (firstname.lastname@example.org) almost always disappear into a black hole, while her phone number at the Commission is answered, when at all, by a woman who claims to not be her. Janet Brown controls the debate process in America, and we know nothing about her except that she enjoys “Burn Notice.”
A left-wing conspiracy? A right-wing conspiracy? No, a bipartisan one. To understand why, we need to unravel the history of the American presidential debate.
Contrary to popular opinion, the debate wasn’t always an integral part of the Presidential process. The famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 were Senatorial, and a full century went by before the format was tried on a national level, with the equally famous Kennedy-Nixon Debate. The myth of that 1960 event says that the handsome Jack won the election that night because a sickly Nixon looked sweaty and uncomfortable on camera, but there were three debates after that one, and the election was still so close Kennedy had to grease the Chicago political machine to pull it out.
Another 16 years passed before the Presidential debate became a television event again. The League of Women Voters, a respected nonpartisan advocacy group dedicated to, among other things, monitoring elections, decided to reinstate it in the wake of the Watergate scandal as a way for Americans to regain trust in its political system. By today’s standards, the debates of the era were remarkably transparent: instead of a moderator marking time, they were orchestrated by a panel of journalists not only asking the tough questions on a variety of topics but also following up and fact checking the candidates as they went along. The 1980 debates even featured a third party candidate, a extremely moderate conservative named John Anderson, who at one point could claim a staggering 22 percent of the national popular vote. (He debated Reagan alone; Jimmy Carter refused to debate him, even though he’d passed the League’s arbitrary 15 percent number in the polls in order to qualify.)
But then, things changed.
In 1984, Reagan and Walter Mondale, the Democratic candidate, vetoed so many of the League’s suggested moderators that the LWV actually held a press conference to protest. By 1986, the two parties had become bold enough to join forces, hammering out a compromise that allowed them full control over the events: not just topics and moderators but everything right down to the seating of the press in the audience and the political leanings of the few voters allowed to attend. They offered the League a chance to rubberstamp the coup, which they naturally refused, and publicly:
The League of Women Voters is withdrawing its sponsorship of the presidential debates… because the demands of the two campaign organizations would perpetrate a fraud on the American voter. It has become clear to us that the candidates’ organizations aim to add debates to their list of campaign-trail charades devoid of substance, spontaneity and answers to tough questions. The League has no intention of becoming an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.
Since 1988, the Presidential debate has lived down to that prophecy, hijacked by the bipartisan CPD, headed since day One by the unknowable Janet Brown.
The regular committee members, however, are not only well-known, but bipartisan and incredibly well connected. They’re more or less a portrait of the status quo in America, but they don’t lean left or right as a group — they’re a powerful consortium of corporatist and government entities intent on ensuring that only certain topics and candidates enter the political arena. They’re led by the perfectly balanced co-chairs of former RNC head Frank J. Fahrenkopf, Jr., co-founder of the CPD and a major gambling lobbyist, and Michael D. McCurry, former Clinton press secretary and member of the lobbying firm Public Strategies Washington, whose clients include the vilified Bain Capital.
There’s Howard Buffett, son of Warren and director of both Coca-Cola and dad’s Berkshire-Hathaway investment house. There’s Janet’s old boss, Mr. Danforth, and John Griffen, a major player in investment banking. Famed former FCC chair Newton Minow, famed for calling television a “vast wasteland” in the ‘60s, is a member, as is Richard Parsons, Citigroup chair and former Time-Warner CEO. Former Republican Senator Alan Simpson and Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins are also on the committee. Rounding out the lineup is the League’s one holdover, Dorothy Ridings, and Antonia Hernandez, CEO of the nation’s largest Latino philanthropic organization. The list of corporations and other powerful entities these people have either joined or assisted are staggering: the RAND Corporation, Blue Cross, AARP, Lockheed, Anheuser-Busch, the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, CBS, UPS, you name it.
The ties to the political system are numerous. Minow mentored President Obama during his early career. Parsons was an economic advisor to Obama and a Social Security advisor to Bush 43. Dick Cheney came very close to handing Danforth the job as Bush’s VP.
It’d be a sterling example of cooperation were it not for the political parties, candidates, and issues that are routinely banned. The panel of moderators are now a distant memory, as are the third party candidates: in 1996, Republican candidate Bob Dole successfully argued to exclude Ross Perot, even though 76 percent of those polled wanted him to take the stage; Perot had captured nearly 20 percent of the 1992 vote after appearing in a three-way debate. Libertarians are justifiably outraged that neither Ron Paul nor Gary Johnson are allowed anywhere near the debates. Green Party members are similarly upset over the exclusion of Ralph Nader and Jill Stein. Fox News invited Nader to watch a 2000 debate in Boston, and he wasn’t even allowed on the grounds. And here’s what happened when Jill tried to walk onto the grounds of Hofstra University during the second 2012 debate:
These independent and third-party candidates all differ on several important issues, but they agree on many which are consistently ignored by the debates — an end to foreign military intervention, dismantling the obscenely wasteful war in drugs, retaining the right to privacy and a fair trial of ordinary citizens, and breaking the monopoly of federally controlled monetary policy. These are some of the most important issues affecting America, and not coincidentally the ones keeping it a troubled empire instead of a prosperous republic.
The good news is that the rising tide of discontent over the CPD and its practices may finally be seeping into the process itself: three corporate sponsors, for the first time, have pulled their funding from the scripted events (Philips Electronics, British ad firm BBH New York, and the YWCA). Then there’s the work of Open Debates and Reclaim Democracy, nonprofit and nonpartisan corporations dedicated to exposing the tyranny of the two=party debate system. So what will this mean for the future of the American presidential debate? If you can find her, ask Janet Brown. Whoever she is.