The Catholic University of America

Feb. 3, 2009

CUA Students Put 21st-Century Spin on Lincoln-Douglas Debates
Lincoln Course Offers Them the Chance to Be Political Pundits

Dan Varroney as Abraham Lincoln and Christopher Anderson as Stephen Douglas

CUA students hurled their best talking points at each other Feb. 5 inside a mock "spin room," bringing some 21st-century political tactics to a lesson about one historic 19th-century campaign.

As part of the history course "Abraham Lincoln in History and Memory," students brought the techniques of modern politics and media coverage to the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, with their classroom temporarily transformed to resemble the so-called spin rooms that dominated major news channels following the 2008 presidential debates.

Dan Varroney, a junior politics major, played the role of a surrogate for Abraham Lincoln. He had a formidable opponent in Christopher Anderson, a sophomore theology major who represented Stephen Douglas. The two students sat at the front of the classroom responding to the opposition's talking points while fielding questions from their resident Wolf Blitzer, Associate Professor Stephen West. Students from either political camp chimed in, assisting their spokesmen with facts and dates to support their claims.

The course is part of a multidisciplinary "Lincoln semester," which commemorates the anniversary of the American hero's birth. Five coordinated courses, all offered this spring, examine Lincoln in history, politics and culture.

West's student were assigned either the Lincoln or Douglas side of one of their seven debates and entered the room with a talking points memo that reflected that campaign's message and would help shape the media's coverage of the debate, breaking it down into sound bites for the 24-hour news cycle.

West instructed his students to highlight their candidate's greatest successes in the debate as well as his opponent's greatest failures - along with any instances where the opponent misstated, mischaracterized or lied about their candidate's positions. The students chose one spokesman to square off against a surrogate from the opponent's campaign, highlighting talking points from all seven debates.

All five Lincoln Semester courses were developed especially for this themed semester by CUA professors who are experts on Lincoln, the Civil War, the Reconstruction or classic rhetoric. The courses are meant to work in tandem, adding up to a depth of perspective on the 16th president. The other Lincoln Semester courses are:

  • Lincoln in Literature and Film, a media and English course;
  • The Legacy of Lincoln: American Art and Culture From 1809-1930, an art history course;
  • Lincoln and Political Leadership, a politics course; and
  • Lincoln's Eloquence, a rhetoric course offered by the media studies department.