When Father John Jenkins was elected to the board of directors of the Commission on Presidential Debates, the University of Notre Dame president owed the honor to a speech he had delivered.

Entitled “Passionate Convictions and Respectful Conversations: Faith in a Pluralistic Society,” Father Jenkins’ remarks in April at Emory University attracted the notice of Mike McCurry, the former Clinton White House press secretary who serves as Democratic co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). (His Republican counterpart is Frank Fahrenkopf, former head of the Republican National Committee.)

McCurry, a Methodist layman who studies theology at the Wesleyan Theological Seminary at American University, read the speech and decided that Father Jenkins’ advocacy for civil discourse and his “standing as a moral philosopher,” as reflected in the Emory talk, would ensure that Father Jenkins could make valuable contributions as a board member of the commission.

“When I suggested his name to the nominating committee, there was an enthusiastic response,” McCurry recalled. “He is an engaging voice and is outspoken on the need for civil discourse.”
A request for an interview with Father Jenkins was referred to McCurry because members of the CPD board don’t customarily discuss the CPD with the press.

A nonprofit, non-partisan organization, the Commission on Presidential Debates was established in 1987 to sponsor and put on the presidential and vice-presidential debates. It only invites candidates from the two major parties, unless a third-party candidate is consistently polling 15% in national polls.

The League of Women Voters filled the role until the league pulled out in 1987, angered after learning that the George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis campaigns had made secret arrangements regarding debate format and choice of moderators, decisions usually left to the Commission on Presidential Debates board. 

The commission functions primarily as the producer of the debates. “We pick the venues, and we have a very elaborate process for applying and showing that you can host an event,” McCurry said.

“We will also turn our attention to two other things: What’s the format that produces the best debate? And: Who will moderate the debates?”

Although the commission picks the moderator, it has no say in what questions will be asked or the content of the debate.

Serving on the commission board won’t be the first time Father Jenkins has been involved in the nation’s political and moral discourse.

In 2009, the Holy Cross priest was thrust into the spotlight when he welcomed President Barack Obama as Notre Dame’s commencement speaker and awarded the president an honorary degree.

Catholics around the country protested that Obama’s positions on the life issues — by then even clearer than they were during the election — made him the wrong choice for a Catholic institution. Refusing to withdraw the invitation, Father Jenkins welcomed Obama to the campus.

“The committee was fully aware of how gracefully he handled that controversy, but that’s not why we picked him,” McCurry said.

Many Catholics, however, remain convinced that a Catholic university should not have hosted a pro-abortion commencement speaker.

Attacks More Personal

Father Jenkins gave his Emory speech shortly after the acrimonious debate in Congress over whether or not to raise the country’s debt ceiling. He called the bitterness of that fight “no aberration, but a fair reflection of the political age we’re in.”

“Ideological differences seem more extreme, positions more entrenched, battles more acrimonious, compromise less common, friendly social relations among members of different parties more rare, and attacks on political opponents more personal,” Father Jenkins said.

“Many factors have contributed to the current polarization,” he continued, “but one important element — it pains me to admit — has been the rise of religious and moral issues in public debate. Whether the issue is abortion, same-sex ‘marriage,’ embryonic stem-cell research, prayer in schools or the proper role of government in addressing social issues — political appeals are often made to our religious convictions and the moral framework closely associated with them.”

Father Jenkins urged that religious convictions should not be “co-opted by partisan political interests, that both sides be humble but clear, and that religious people recognize the value of witness.”

McCurry believes that Father Jenkins will be particularly valuable when the board talks about format and what might be done to ensure an appropriate atmosphere and tone at the debates.

“The commission plans to spend time holding a retreat to think through how we can design a format that will get the candidates talking about the future of the country,” said McCurry.

In addition to putting on the U.S. debates, the commission provides help for groups in other countries that would like to host debates.

The U.S. debates are financed by sponsors from the corporate and foundation world. Sponsors in the past have included Anheuser-Busch Companies, The Kovler Fund, The Howard G. Buffett Foundation, AARP, YWCA USA and several airlines.

Other members of the commission board of directors are former Sen. John Danforth, who is an ordained Episcopal minister, philanthropist Howard Buffett, son of billionaire investor Warren Buffett; former Sen. Alan Simpson; former Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow; Antonia Hernandez, a lawyer who advocates for Hispanic causes; Dorothy Riding, president and CEO of the Council on Foundations; Citigroup chairman Richard Parsons; and equity expert John Griffen, managing director at Allen & Company LLC.

The commission is also an educational organization that, through a program called “Debate Watch,” encourages citizens across the country to get together to watch and discuss the debates.

Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.