A history of Presidential debate negotiations, from belt buckles to town-hall styles, to letting the vice presidents debate, to how many debates there will be, or not having debates at all. From 2012 but applicable to today.
This was a crucial question for the debates to one presidential election year.
Belt buckle or no belt buckle?
Make no mistake, everything that appeared on TV in the 1976 debates between the president of the United States, Gerald Ford, and his Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter was prearranged.
It was the first time anyone had debated an incumbent live on TV, and it wasn’t something the Carter’s team wanted.
As the challenger hit a double digit lead. And he didn’t need this live television event.
His team was wary of their guy being next to a Perdis live on TV.
Ford challenged Carter to a debate in a surprise declaration in his acceptance speech at the RNC convention in Kansas City that year, the people deserve to hear from us. He boldly declared. We take debates for granted now, right after the conventions, we go to the debates, it’s part of the election. But if President Ford had not been so far down in the polls compared to this, out of nowhere, refreshing new candidate with a peanut farmer smile. So not Watergate, so on Nixon. So this imperial presidency, who is running around the country taking shots at President Ford, who didn’t have the strain of governing if he didn’t need to get this guy in the ring, it’s doubtful whether we would even have TV debates as part of our politics now. Yes, they had those debates in 1960, but don’t forget, Lyndon Johnson didn’t debate Goldwater in 64, Nixon didn’t debate Humphrey in 68, nor McGovern in 72.
Debates could have been a fluke of early television and forgotten about. But then came 1976, and of course, Carter, once challenged, couldn’t say no. But he would do everything he could to make himself equal to a president of the United States.
Height was a factor.
Ford was three and a half inches taller than Carter, not that much taller, but enough to worry about how would it look? So the arrangement was made. Carter’s podium would go to one inch below his belt buckle.
Ford’s podium would go two inches above his belt buckle, knocking down that imperial presidency a little bit. In exchange for two people would get something that they wanted, they could depict the background color, the blue that they felt would be good against his thinning hair and a brace to hold Ford’s glass of water on the podium.
He had been the butt of jokes as a klutz. And if he dropped that water during the debate, Chevy Chase would never have let him forget it. But if Ford thought he was going to nonchalantly put a seal of the president of the United States on his podium, yet another thing coming from Carter’s negotiation team, Ford’s people just said, hey, that seal goes wherever the president goes here.
He’s speaking every time he’s speaking that sea is there, Ford’s team said.
No way, Carter’s team said presidents never debated before. He’s not having that seal here, that a little bit of negotiation has lasted through time and debates.
I’m sorry, could I just did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence and occupying most of the countries there and and making sure with their troops that it’s that it’s a communist zone. Whereas on our side of the line, the Italians and the French are still flirting.
I don’t believe, Mr. Frankel, that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don’t believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those countries is independent, autonomous. It has its own territorial integrity. And the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union. As a matter of fact, I visited Poland, Yugoslavia and Romania to make certain that the people of those countries understood that the president of the United States and the people of the United States are dedicated to their independence, their autonomy and their freedom.
Governor Carter, your response in the first place?
I’m not criticizing his holiness the pope. I was talking about Mr. Ford. The fact is that secrecy has surrounded the decisions made by the Ford administration. In the case of the Helsinki agreement. That may have been a good agreement at the beginning, but we have failed to enforce the so-called basket three part, which ensures the right of people to migrate, to join the families, to be free to speak out. The Soviet Union is still jamming radio, free Europe, radio, radio, Free Europe is being jammed. We’ve also seen a very serious problem with the so-called Sonnenfeld document, which apparently Mr. Ford has just endorsed, but said it has an organic linkage between the Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union. And I would like to see Mr. Ford convince the Polish Americans and the Czech Americans and Hungarian Americans in this country that those countries don’t live under the domination and supervision of the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain.
Of course, four years later, it didn’t stop Carter’s people from trying to put a seal on his podium during his debate with Reagan, which was also rejected. Next, would the candidates stand or sit where they stand when one is talking and then sit down after they’re done? Well, that one required the debate negotiators to actually call Ford and Carter to get their permission. They would stand statesmanlike.
It was a heady time, 200 years of America and lots of trinkets, belt buckles, flag ties, patches, ceramic mugs with stars and stripes and 76 blazing in order to celebrate it in space. America’s great presence was felt as the Viking one spacecraft landed on Mars and sent back photos. And on Earth, Farrah Fawcett posters became a major fad. And you went to the theater to watch Kerry network the bad news bears or see a Philadelphia underdog get a chance to take on the heavyweight champion of the world. Why not go to the theater? Gas is just 59 cents a gallon. If you flicked on your portable FM radio, you could hear Elton John and could sing Don’t Go Breaking My Heart with the big thing. You should be dancing. You could hear any number of new disco hits virtually static free. Meanwhile, in the political world, experimentation was going on as well in both parties. Each candidate was not in line with the party establishment or party delegates. Ford, whose poll rating had dropped when he pardoned Nixon, picked Nelson Rockefeller as his vice president and then drew a bruising primary campaign from California Governor Ronald Reagan. He barely won his nomination with very little expectation. Now a victory with Jimmy Carter, 40 points ahead of Gerald Ford.
He invoked the needs of the American people. The American people, Ford said, deserved, in his presidential opinion, the right to hear from their candidates. We’ll never know what his recommendation would have been if he was 40 points up instead of down, but in any case, his call was great for television history on accepting the nomination of the Republican Party in Kansas City, said, I am ready. I am eager to go before the American people and debate the real issues face to face with Jimmy Carter. The American people have a right to know firsthand exactly where both of us stand.
What he did not call for was a debate between the man he had selected, his running mate in Kansas City, Bob Dole, senator from Kansas, and the man that Jimmy Carter had selected, Senator Walter Mondale of Minnesota. But by putting the needs of the American people first, the American people deserve to hear by elevating debates as a public good that the American people needed. He invited it. So the League of Women Voters running the presidential debates at this point, particularly league executive director Peggy Lampl, figured that three vice presidents had become president since 1945. Current president had been a vice president.
The people should hear from the number twos as well. There doesn’t seem to have been serious objection to a vice presidential debate at the negotiation sessions in 76 between the Ford and Carter campaigns, league officials seem to have felt that the Democrats were more favorable to the idea than the Republican, but there was little real objection. Yet Senator Bob Dole, as he campaigned, made it clear that he did not take the idea seriously. He said that the voters were more interested in going to a Friday night football game than in listening to the vice presidential candidates debate. He frequently referred to the event as Doyle and Mondale debates. People don’t even know our names. On the day of the debate, Dole said he would rather have the four or five days preparation time that he took to spend campaigning. But it turned out to be more of an important event than it would have seemed to double stakes were high as the race at the top of the ticket between Carter and Ford was so close. Jimmy Carter had been stunned as President Ford was aggressive and sharp in their first debate. Then Ford had made a blunder in the second debate, saying there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.
It didn’t make sense and it didn’t look like Ford was connected with reality. Polls are tight 48 to 42 Carter over Ford. So it went to the VP candidates for the next possible turning point of this close campaign, the Bob Dole of 1976. And you can go on YouTube and watch. It was a bit harsher in tone. And he was being sent out as Ford was staying in the White House and playing kind of a Rose Garden strategy where he wouldn’t sink to Carter’s level. Bob Dole was sent out to hit the campaign stump and attack the Carter Mondale ticket, and that’s who showed up at the debate. October 15th, 1976, Walter Mondale and Bob Dole meet in Houston. He adopted that VP candidate roll of the hatchet man. Democrats like to talk about Watergate, he said, but they voted against it. When we tried to extend the investigation to all corruption, if Democrats were investigated, there would be a hue and cry. Turning to his debating opponent, he then said Mondale would drop dead. Although there was a slight joke to everything Dole was saying in this debate, he didn’t give much evidence of a smile. Still, Dole establish what has generally been the rule of a vice presidential debates since then. He attacked the top of the ticket more than the fellow at the bottom.
I just watched Carter had a foreign policy said doesn’t have any foreign experience. I don’t know why he was interviewed in Playboy. I guess we’ll give him the bunny vote. Good thing there are three debates. Carter’s got three positions on every issue, but the best line or so he thought. He held close to his chest he was ready to use in defense. See, Dole knew that he’d get asked about Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon, which was controversial in this election. Dole, as a senator running for reelection two years before, had criticized Ford for pardoning Nixon. So when asked about it, Dole retorted, I don’t want any rub off here. He brings up Watergate all the time. And then he said they didn’t have anything to do with Watergate. The Nixon pardon didn’t apply to him or Ford any more than these so-called Democrat wars, which he listed World War to the war in Korea. Vietnam would apply to Carter and Mondale, but that wasn’t enough. Then he said, you know, I did a calculation the other day. I figured up how many were killed in war started by Democrats, one point six million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit. If you want to go back and rake that over and over, we can do that.
That didn’t go over so well in the debate. Many years later, he would tell PBS in those days you had a stack of briefing books about too high. And that was in the briefing book, which I received from the Ford people, the National Committee. And I guess I should have exercised my own judgment. Mondale was very anxious to get the chance to help out his running mate again in 1980. Now that he was vice president, though, the presidential candidates didn’t agree to a debate yet, Mondale personally sent a telegram to the League of Women Voters to try to get an event going at the vice presidential level. But the vice presidential nominee of the Republican Party, George H.W. Bush, refused to yield, dubbing the vice presidential debates a strictly minor league, comparing the two candidates to minor league baseball players with a Toledo Mud Hens. He said, well, something happened after 1980, which the media and certainly the League of Women Voters couldn’t ignore. Geraldine Ferraro, congresswoman from New York, was chosen as the Democrat’s vice presidential candidate. Going into the debate, Vice President Bush would now face up to the first woman candidate on a major party national ticket. The Democrats certainly wanted to showcase her and negotiated a VP debate. In that debate, George H.W.
Bush made the decision to treat her as any candidate and was aggressive right off the back, attacking her liberal voting record, attacking her for having differences with her running mate Mondale while he as vice president have absolute loyalty to Reagan. A key moment of the debate occurred when he differed on the covert ops in foreign policy and said, but let me help you with the difference, Miss Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon to start with, I should have said Congresswoman Ferraro, that led to her response.
I almost resent Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.
Years later, Bush would tell Jim Lehrer, I think she was ready. She probably had been rehearsed for that. And I can’t even remember what it was. And I said, let me help you with it or something. And that brought the crowd to its feet. It’s show business, Jim. It’s not really debating.
We haven’t discussed the most important moment of vice presidential debating, the one which everyone knows, which will probably hold the title for some time, the debate of 1988 between Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas and Dan Quayle of Indiana. It’s well documented. I almost do need to tell you the moment. And of course, it involved Bentsen telling Quayle. I knew Jack Kennedy, I served with Jack Kennedy, Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy,
Quayle: if that situation, which would be very tragic, happens, I will be prepared to carry out the responsibilities of the presidency of the United States of America. And I will be prepared to do that. I will be prepared not only because of my service in the Congress, but because of my ability to communicate, to lead. It is not just age, its accomplishments, its experience. I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president this country. I have as much spirits in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration. That unfortunate event would ever occur.
Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy. What has to be done in a situation like that…
That was really uncalled for, Senator.
You’re the one that was making the comparison, Senator, and I’m one who knew him well, and frankly, I think you’re so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well taken.
Of course, the elder senator was playing on a double entendre that the audience picked up on, but he could ostensibly claim not to be participating. And he was just saying, you don’t support the policies that Jack Kennedy did. But, of course, what he really meant to say to the TV audience was that Quayle was not the type of man, person or politician that the iconic former president was, that he didn’t deserve to be on the national stage. So when Quayle reacted to that and said, Senator, that was uncalled for, Lloyd Bentsen just responded, you are the one making the comparison. Folksy old guy beats outrage NewBay. Any time Bentsen became of the entire 1988 election the most beloved, the highest poll ratings of all four people running. But he wasn’t on the top of the ticket. Now, I will engage in a little bit of a defense of Dan Quayle here on this point. Obviously not a great TV moment, but Dan Quayle statement was made about the Jack Kennedy when he was under attack for his perceived lack of experience. Serious Republicans like Al Haig said, you know, your pick was the dumbest move George Bush could have made. So in answering the question during the debate, Dan Quayle said the question goes to whether I’m qualified. I have more experience in Congress than Jack Kennedy did when he ran for president. So here is Quayle running for vice president. A little bit of defense of Dan Quayle. There wasn’t an attempt to claim that he was a Kennedy. It was it was a response to an attack. Gandu the House in 1977. OK, then he did four years in the house, eight years in the Senate, 12 years total. Kennedy entered the House in 1946, four years in the House, eight years in the Senate. Same experience as Kennedy. Kennedy is a hero that’s so adored, though it’s not difficult to see how in a well-prepared debate rehearsal that line could have been readied. Judy Woodruff, one of the moderators in that room, said that as much as they tried, there was no way they could calm the audience after that comment.
It was a long way from the days of, my dear sir, will it be agreeable to make an arrangement for you and myself to divide time and address the same audiences in the present canvas? Your obedient servant, a Lincoln. That letter to Senator Stephen Douglas that began the process of a series of well publicized debates that would help make Lincoln a presidential contender, the answer back was yes, of course, and let’s do it. In each of Illinois’s congressional districts, Lincoln accepted and Douglass picked Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesborough, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy and Alton.
And he said, I will speak at Ottowa first you at Freeport, and then we will alternate Abraham Lincoln Response. Although by terms you propose you take four openings to my three highest seed and thus close the arrangement. A little 19th century snark from a Lincoln. But nonetheless, the negotiations for America’s most famous debate were finished right there with letters between the candidates. The memory of that debate 100 years before was on the minds of 1950s America.
Few trial runs, too, with his new medium of television primary appearances with Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver battling for the presidential nomination in 1956. And as the number of TV sets in homes had increased from four point four million in 1950 to 40 million in 1960, some 88 percent TV was important. The candidates had to speak to it. Something else was going on. This new TV medium was seen as less intelligent than the written word was being criticized. It was competing with a key opinion makers and considered thoughts. The newspaper and the magazine.
It might be out of control, and then the idea that game show contestant had been coached to lose so that someone else could win the prize triggered congressional hearings, was what we are seeing on TV really what we’re seeing? Scandal, scandal. So in 1960, the networks said that they’d give at least eight hours each to the two candidates, but the networks would still wish to control how it was used, how it was presented to make it the most interesting to viewers. They did not want to have Adlai Stevenson talking head on for an hour. They inquired of the campaigns as to a Lincoln Douglas like series of great debates on TV for 1960, with both candidates of both parties appearing together, Kennedy’s campaign was quick to accept. President Eisenhower suggested that his vice president running that year, Richard Nixon not except he should not stoop to a challenger’s level and give Kennedy an opportunity that he otherwise wouldn’t have. He was, after all, the vice president of the United States. But after being questioned about it in a press conference and a lot of pressure and the news media and on TV, Nixon accepted. Nixon was known to be a good debater. He had handled TV before. He had shown up Nikita Khrushchev, a little impromptu TV debate that they had. I knew that it would be Kennedy advantage, Nixon said in his memoirs, noting that Kennedy could take the offense and Nixon would be forced on the defense defending the Eisenhower record. But he said there was no way I could refuse to debate without the media and the Kennedy campaign turning the refusal into a campaign issue. The question was, Nixon said, how to give Kennedy less advantage.
Thus, they began negotiations at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. There would be four debates. The second and the fourth would be press conference style. Press would ask questions, the candidates answered, and the first in the third would be more of a debate style. Topics presented, statements and rebuttals. Nixon’s negotiations would prove to be critical to the outcome of the debates, figuring that the audience for the last debate would be the highest. Now, there was no precedent for these TV debates before Nixon insisted on discussing the foreign policy information last. And he later admitted it turned out to be his biggest mistake because the first debate was watched by more people and that debate was on domestic issues. Now, Kennedy is a member of the House and Senate Labor Committee, was able to handle domestic policy quite easily. When you look at most of the TV debates that we have had since 1960. A lot of it is based on the precedent set in that CBS studios in that year. Most of it from the Nixon people, they insisted on having lecterns first, simply having candidates standing. They insisted on a table between the media and the two candidates, they wanted a good distance between Nixon and Kennedy. Nixon wanted both candidates sitting down here. Kennedy’s people objected. Kennedy’s people knew that Nixon had hurt his knee and the standing would cause him to jerk a bit, which would look on stable, throw him off a bit. And you thought football was the only sport where injuries were taken advantage of? OK, Nixon said. But they asked that the candidates sit down while the other candidate was speaking, limiting reaction shots or any upstaging while Nixon was speaking.
Yes, these debate negotiations have not always been based on principled matters. In 1984, Democrats would negotiate an hour and a half debate with President Ronald Reagan.
Why? So that they could discuss the issues in a more robust fashion. Right. Hmm. Knowing his age and knowing that his responses would tend to be more of the scripted variety. It had always been his style, the good soundbites, his prepared answers, knowing that they would run out after a certain point of time, they insisted on a longer format and indeed in their first debate. Democratic candidate Walter Mondale performed surprisingly well and Reagan meandered one of his worst performances on television ever. Yeah, in the second debate, he would make quick work of his Democratic opponent. Mondale would get no third chance at the debates. His team had given up three debates for that length of an hour and a half that they wanted. Usually a president, at least a frontrunning president, wants less debates. A challenger usually wants more. It means more TV time, more time to get the message out to be seen by new voters. 1976, reverse that trend a bit. As Ford was president and happened to be the underdog in 1980, Carter came close to refusing to debate at all. Reagan’s campaign would debate, but only a third party candidate, Anderson, was in the debate. As the sponsor, the League of Women Voters insisted in the end to get rid of Anderson, Reagan’s team, led by James Baker, insisted on a single debate one week before the elections. Carter was under heavy criticism for having refused to debate previously. It was a way to get rid of Anderson in a way to move on with a debate in the election. He took it. Carter’s poor performance in this one debate will give him no time to recover. Indeed, there was no doubt that James Baker is one of the bitter debate negotiators in 1980.
He got that one debate before and that was probably his biggest victory, that one debate before the 1980 election. This did two things, Baker’s estimation. It limited the amount of time that Carter could respond to anything that occurred in the debate, but it also would, in effect, freeze Reagan’s lead. This is a little noticed trend. A debate announcement freezes an election, in a sense, because everyone is focused for weeks on the upcoming debate. So it’s hard for an underdog candidate to change the election or create news reporters.
Just keep going back to the theme of, well, wait for those debates. This happened to Carter, but the date also boxed him in. Had he been done better in the debate than he did, he would have only a week to benefit from that gain. And since he didn’t perform well, he had no time to recover. The election result in terms of the number of states Carter won was worse than most political experts had predicted before that debate was held.
I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuban missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?
Not at all, Mr. Truit And I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.
Bigger also got the two debates in 1984 and told to caucus negotiator in 1988 that they would get two debates, take it or leave it. There’s few concessions to the Dukakis camp. They did agree to a VP debate now precedent anyway, and a riser on Dukakis’s platform that would help to adjust for the candidate’s height vis a vis President Bush. Not without an insult during the negotiations, apparently, from Baker. What is your guy going to do? He said, according to one person in negotiations, when he has to go up against Gorbachev, something else occurred in these debates. In 1984 and 1988, a new device was created, a memo of understanding between the two parties. This agreement hasn’t always rubbed everyone the right way. In 1984, after 60 potential media panelists were rejected between the two campaigns as they kind of run up to each other and the League of Women Voters issued a press release attacking both sides in the negotiation, and top newspapers pulled their reporters from being involved in any TV debates. The League of Women Voters conduct election debates all over the country for state and local positions, some congressional races, some primary. And in 1976, they had run the debates when the league saw the 1988 agreement between the two parties, the restrictions on who could participate, just the two major parties and what questions could be asked and who would be the moderators.
They called it a fraud on the American people.
Undeterred, Paul Kirk and Frank Fahrenkopf, representatives of their respective Democrat and Republican parties, formed the Commission on Presidential Debates in 1987. And since then they have handled presidential debates. The League of Women Voters was not happy at the time and issued a scathing press release that said they are trying to steal the debates. Unlike the commission, no one at the league has a stake in the election. But what the parties did have were the two guys, and indeed, when the league sent invites that year to their debate, the campaigns declined. Despite the creation of the CPD, ostensibly for better negotiations and smoother debates, it was still not completely guaranteed that there would be debate between presidential candidates. Indeed, in 1992, the Bush campaign held off not sure about how they do against challenger Clinton. Then a campaign of Clinton staffers initially done at the local level, but it spread throughout the country of staffers wearing chicken suits, wherever the president would be made debate avoid and possible, especially after a Midwestern train tour where President Bush debated with a man in a chicken suit and asked him if he was from the Arkansas River.
If you are President, debating a chicken. That’s just wrong.
Once he was forced into it and accepted debates, he asked for the most, he asked for four debates to be held in the last four weeks of the election, running up to Election Day, something that a frontrunner really wouldn’t like.
Some Clinton aides felt that they’d really done it as they met Bush’s debate negotiators and Mickey Cantor’s office. Their big fear was, were they going to have to go up against Jim Baker? They knew how he had ripped previous teams to shreds. The guy negotiated in the Middle East, for God’s sakes, an aide told newspaper anonymously. But they indeed, they were relieved when Bob Teeter and a few other aides walked through the door instead of Baker and the Clinton people got most of what they wanted, a town hall type debate.
We were hooting and hollering in the office when we got that, Paul Begala said Clinton, they felt, was the rock star of retail politics and you’d be able to touch the audience, feel their pain, which in the second debate, it was a town hall style. He certainly did. Yet Bush’s people in 92 hadn’t quite seen it as a threat either, just a moderate speaker in large audiences. President Bush had always been good with little groups and the Richmond, Virginia audience, they felt maybe sympathetic to him. So they agreed. Most importantly, for Clinton’s people who were in the front runner spot at this point in 92, they avoided a debate the Sunday before the election. Not that the Bush people didn’t try when it was proposed by the Bush negotiating team. Paul Brontë’s, who had been in the room for the caucus Bush debate negotiations, remembered what James Baker had told them when they asked for a debate right before Election Day. No way will I let you get at my candidate the last week if a statement is made. He will have no time to correct it. Now, once Bryant is quoted back Baker’s statement to the Bush campaign team, that was enough to kill that idea in that session.
So what appears to be all simple matters are all things that can be negotiated in the pregame phase of a debate to try to influence the results for at least what candidates think will be their advantage doesn’t always work out that way. By the way, Carter, who initially didn’t want debates by the end of election, was saying that the debate was what got him the election since Ford had made a big mistake in the second debate. Kennedy’s team wanted a lot of debates, but as it turned out, they did very well in the first debate. And then Nixon started to do better in the second and third. And it was a draw on the fourth one debate would have been better for him. So in everything we’re talking about today, we’re talking about what teams think will be better for their candidate. Doesn’t always mean they’ll be right. But there are many ways you can try to influence these results. A panel of moderators, you know, seems innocent, right? It’s that’s good, though. If you want your candidate to be a bit evasive. If there’s four reporters asking questions, they can only take so much time and follow up is difficult.
You have to move on to the next reporter so candidates can dodge a single moderator like a James Lehrer type situation, compress answers, follow up and keep a deeper focus on one question. Town halls add some strange dynamics because you’ve got all these other players who don’t even know their players and hopefully or are screened for their randomness and their impartiality. And they’re not professional reporters. Now, this is important. 1992, Bush was totally thrown off during the debate when a woman asked him about the deficit but meant the economy. Clinton then answered the question and understood what she meant, he answered that question about the economy. Bush was just simply confused and couldn’t respond properly. A professional journalist would never have made such a mistake. People in town hall settings just simply are more timid than a reporter. And faced with a even a challenger for the presidency of the United States is not normally someone that they’re going to meet in their lives. And so they can be a little more timid in terms of follow up, but they can also react emotionally in ways that can either help or hurt a candidate. Why debate negotiations can even be done. So to make debates invisible.
This is what was widely contended about the 1996 election when President Clinton as an incumbent in the lead. Didn’t want to necessarily debate debate, but knew that he was an able debater and he could handle it if needed. And Bob Dole, though, the challenger, normally the challenger wants to debate, wasn’t thrilled about a series of debate with, you know, younger, more energetic, better debater Clinton and agreed to just two debates, both of them during the World Series and without third party candidate Perot. That decision was widely criticized third party candidates. Perhaps the American voter are the loser in negotiations between our two major parties, the CPD rule is that a candidate would need 15 percent in five major polls to be up on the stage against the two party candidates. It’s a very high standard, only reached by Ross Perot in 1992, Anderson would not have gotten there in 1980, particularly if we’re talking about five polls needed to show 15 percent would have been under that at the time of setting debates. The 1960 debate would result from the removal of Section three one five from the federal communications code. Now, this is the this is an equal time provision. This was suspended in 1960 to allow the networks to have a debate between the Democrats and the Republicans in the argument for this suspension before Congress. We see from the network representatives the other side of this question.
They were arguing if the rule remained that in 1960, they would have had to include 14 people up on the stage, not just Kennedy and Nixon, but also married Curtis of the Constitution Party, Farrel Dobbs of the Socialist Workers, even Simon Gould of the American Vegetarian Party. In addition to prohibitionists, the other strains of socialists and many other parties. This leads to the chicken and egg question. Candidate from the Constitution Party could speak. Maybe they get that 15 percent, but then why should they get a chance to have TV coverage if they don’t have enough supporters to justify it versus a party with seats in Congress, governorships and a chance of winning the election if it were held on the day that we’re discussing the debate at all does seem like that 15 percent standard is fairly high. And it is, of course, designed by two parties who don’t want third parties. And generally maybe it could be lowered to eight percent, but then to candidates just run celebrities to get to that eight percent while some third parties are already running celebrities without even that standard. But that’s certainly possible. Or maybe just once we could have that debate that the networks loathed in 1960. We could just have one of those debates, all 14 people on the stage, two major party candidates along with all those others.
And then go ahead and have the two or three debates and see what happens. Why it doesn’t happen will that. The answer to that question reveals where the power lies. We don’t have such debates because one or the other major party candidates would back out, does no other legal mechanism and and not really enough popular interest in seeing all these third party candidates to force them to do this right now could certainly change. So we’ve learned that there are a lot of chefs in the stew besides Romney and Obama managing a debate before it happens and there’s a lot of precedent in history. So some negotiation in 2012 wasn’t even necessary. It’s just accepted now. But at least the debate itself is real, right, once the cameras start? Well, I mean, yes, of course it is. And you might think that you’re seeing the real candidate and of course, you will be. But you’ll also be seeing the preparation of that candidate who the candidate is after they’ve got a briefing book in their head. You’re seeing the preparation or lack thereof at their best or at their worst. Debate prep in 1960 was thorough for then Senator Kennedy. He was given an extensive briefing book, which they called The Nixon Obediah, which had every one of Nixon’s opinions on things. And he had notecards on important issues given to him by his aides, Ted Sorensen and Richard Goodwin.
They peppered the senator with questions the night before and the morning of the debate. And right before he had to show up to the studio, took a little nap. He had supper alone. Nixon, on the other hand, had figured, OK, I’m in Chicago for the debate. I’ll meet with the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and try to get some of the union vote in the morning. But it was a hostile crowd and he was annoyed. By the meeting and after that meeting, he retreated to his hotel room, one of his staff members said, we kept pushing for Nixon to have some give and take with the staff, but Nixon refused. The vice president just simply said he knew how to debate and indeed he did. Nixon had won his first congressional seat, principally because he challenged a longtime Democratic incumbent to a debate and beat him. Yet after his poor performance with Senator Kennedy in that 1960 debate, he would then engage in more rigorous preparation for the second and third, which most viewers thought he won. Despite their more extensive preparation in 1960, even Kennedy staff would not have recognized the scene in 1992, as Dick Darman, Bush campaign adviser, arrived to the White House with sunglasses and a saxophone from Toys R US.
He was to be the Clinton in the debate prep, and John Sununu went as far to put on a set of plastic ears for his role as the Perot in the debate prep. They were to go through a complete rehearsal of the debate. And indeed, it’s common these days for people to relish that role of being one or the other opponent in the debate prep. And it’s announced in the newspapers. Romney’s opponent pretending to be Obama will be Bob Portman of Ohio. Sununu and Darman were a bit light on the president. His prep was light compared to Governor Clinton’s. A quick rehearsal and then a look at the briefing books and some questions around the Oval Office. Several full dress rehearsals were held in Camp Clinton. Washington lawyer Bob Bennett played Bush and Oklahoma Congressman Mike Snyder played Ross Perot. The two went after Clinton aggressively. And then Clinton was critiqued by a group of judges. They did this several times in the first dress. The campaign staff acting as judges, scored Clinton third in the debate. He had forgotten the good lines. He waffled on the draft question. He was defensive when asked about his time in Russia. He was supposed to mention Al Bush’s father ran against McCarthy. Clinton didn’t even remember to use the line. The campaign staff was heavy with criticism, so much so that VP candidate Al Gore was dispatched for a quick consoling phone call. Afterwards, Jim Carville said it was all part of the plan. The job was to cream him, to keep him from getting complacent. And indeed, in the real debate, Clinton would remember and use the line about President Bush’s father. Carville may have perfected the prep, but he didn’t invent this dress rehearsal for his campaign in 1976, did a full dress, including a pretend media asking question. As Ford’s media adviser said, the prep is so that nothing can surprise the president.
Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, thought it was unnatural and told the press, I am not going to practice against a dummy opponent or make up cute speeches or anything like that. His debating would be real. But after the first debate, that real performance was considered poor compared to the president.
And so Carter upped his practice.
And as president, he engaged in a limited prep. He did have a California political science professor who knew Governor Reagan come in and try to prepare him for his debate against him. Carter’s aides cringe when the professor who knew Reagan well made the president look foolish in the debate. Every time President Carter said something, the political science professor Sam Pumpkin’s, would come out with a folksy line. I thought the Marines were going to take out my kneecaps after I beat him in that debate. Yet Carter was now president. He lacked the time and to some extent the interest in practicing more rehearsals. In 1996, Bob Dole refused prep, thinking it was silly, as Dole said, it’s like filling up the tank with gas.
There’s only so much more you can put in. Yet it’s clear if you want to win, you can’t fully follow Dole’s thinking, one of the most noticed scenes of the 1992 debates, and it was in the second debate, President Bush and we’re talking, of course, about the H.W. Bush.
He glanced at his watch. It looked like he was just looking to get out of that room to get out of there and kind of symbolic of his presidency being over. And all of that certainly caused him to lose the debate in the eyes of most people watching. Yet that shot should never have happened. The rules of the debate were that there would be no reaction shots. She shouldn’t have been able to see Bush glancing at his watch. Only the candidates speaking would be on camera.
But in Clinton’s debate prep, the staff had prepared an entire mock studio that looked exactly like that town hall. They knew where the cameras would be, and they found that if Clinton got up in certain spots, he could stand in an area where the camera had to show either Bush or in other areas where it had to show Perreault in the reaction shot. This kind of prep paid dividends in that debate. I still think that, like any kind of live TV debates are still so important and.
No matter how much negotiations and scripting that goes on, there’s still always the chance that anything can happen.
But I hope it’s been useful to see some of the things that go on before debates and that they’re not that new. I want to thank you for listening. The website is w w w dot. My history can beat up your politics. com
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