Master debaters and political disasters

Ten years in the making, PBS's "Debating Our Destiny" digs deeper than Nixon's sweat, Bush's watch and the Dukakis disaster.


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Jake Tapper
September 21, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

About the stupidest idea to come out of the babbling, out-of-touch pundits in Washington is that the election's over, Vice President Al Gore has won and the next seven weeks are just a technicality.

While no doubt reassuring to the largely Democratic media, this shallow analysis ignores the capriciousness of holdout swing voters in states like Ohio and Missouri. And it also ignores the tremendous importance of the upcoming presidential debates. For that reason alone, PBS's "Debating Our Destiny," which airs Sunday, should be required viewing inside the Beltway.

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Hosted by Jim Lehrer -- the agreed-upon moderator of this year's pending debates -- and featuring Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton, the program is the first to comprehensively analyze the importance of presidential debates. Ten years in the making, "Debating Our Destiny" also includes an impressive lineup of losers from these contests: Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Geraldine Ferraro, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, John Anderson, Adm. James Stockdale and Dan Quayle.

Since there were no debates between 1960 and 1976, the only debaters since the Ford-Carter showdown not to participate with PBS are Lloyd Bentsen, who was debilitated by a stroke, Ross Perot and -- curiously -- alleged master-debater Gore. (Gore spokesman Chris Lehane doesn't recall PBS asking Gore to participate, but assumes that his boss didn't want to tip his hand before facing George W. Bush. "It'd be like [Boston Red Sox pitcher] Pedro Martinez explaining his pitches before a playoff game," Lehane says.

What comes across in this PBS film of highlights and post-debate interviews is how important these candidates feel the debates were to their wins or losses. After Reagan's debate joke that he wouldn't "exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience," Mondale tells Lehrer, "That was really the end of my campaign that night, I think ... I walked off and I was almost certain the campaign was over, and it was."

How important were the 1976 debates to Ford? His claim that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe" was, according to Carter, "a very serious mistake ... There are so many factors that can enter a campaign, but certainly it cost him some votes, and as you know, the election was quite close."

Seconds Ford, "We ended up losing by only a point and a half, or maybe two points. So any one of a number of problems in the campaign could have made the difference."

The clips themselves are fascinating: Richard Nixon sweating through his debate with John F. Kennedy in 1960, Dukakis delivering pulseless bureaucratese when asked if he would approve the death penalty for someone who raped and murdered his wife, Bentsen slamming Quayle as "no Jack Kennedy."

But interviews with the debaters are even more illuminating. And the reassuring, common-sense probing of Lehrer helps explain the humanity beneath the political stereotypes -- as well as what made these men (and one woman) act in the sometimes inexplicable ways they did.

Stockdale, for instance, hadn't been told about the debates until about a week before. "Oh, Jim, I forgot to tell you," Perot told him, Stockdale reports. "Your invitation came here about three weeks ago and we accepted for you."

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But while Stockdale may not have been prepared enough, others argue against overstudying. A lesson to George W. from other lightweight Republicans: Reagan says he was overtrained for his first disastrous debate against Mondale. "I just had more facts and figures poured at me for weeks before than anyone could possibly sort out and use," he tells Lehrer. "When I got there, I realized that I was wracking my brain so much for facts and figures on whatever subject we were talking about ... I knew I didn't do well."

Likewise, Dole offers a cautionary tale to Gore, a fellow former senator with the occasional hankering for the jugular: Take it easy. Dole's 1976 vice presidential debate, in which many observers thought he came across as mean and partisan -- especially in referring to World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam as "Democratic wars" -- was, in Mondale's estimation, the moment "they blew the election."

"I probably wish I hadn't said it," Dole allows.

Vice presidential candidates Joe Lieberman and Dick Cheney should glean other lessons from predecessors' missteps: Unlike Kemp in '96, you'd better play offense and lay into your opponent's running mate. And unlike Gore in '92, you'd better play defense and defend your running mate. "There was a lot of excitement in the Republican circles right after that debate," says Quayle, "because we had scored a lot of points on that trust and taxes, and Gore just refused to defend Clinton."

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But some aspirants might not hear anything worthwhile. Or at least reassuring. Anderson, the 1980 Independent candidate, has a discouraging word for fellow third-party candidates Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan: Anderson did "not get the bounce that I had hoped for" after being included in the first presidential debate and found it "absolutely devastating" when he wasn't invited to the second one.

But perhaps the most relevant details are those involving George W.'s father, which may help explain why the Texas governor was so reluctant to bring this year's presidential debates to the widest possible audience. The elder Bush says that the debates should not be required.

"I think you ought to do what's best to get you elected," Bush says. "And if that's best that you have no debates, too bad for all you debate lovers, because I really think a candidate should be entitled to that."

This might not be shocking to all those who remember Bush looking at his watch during the second town hall presidential debate in 1992 in Richmond, Va., a moment Clinton recalls charitably.

"He was, you know, uncomfortable in that setting and wanted it to be over with," Clinton says. "I think the reason so much was made of it is that the impression was forming that here was a very good man who was very devoted to our country but just didn't really believe that all these domestic issues should be dominating the way they were."

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Responds Bush: "I was glad when the damn thing was over. Yeah. And maybe that's why I was looking at it. 'Only 10 more minutes of this crap,' I mean."

It ain't crap to us, Mr. President. As Lehrer clearly understands.


Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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