A Historical View Of The Presidential Debate
The NewsHour's regular panel of historians -- presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Micheal Beschloss, journalist/author Haynes Johnson and Bill Kristol, editor editor and publisher of The Weekly Standard -- put the first presidential debate of 1996 in perspective.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Joining us now are four NewsHour regulars, presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss. Journalist and author Haynes Johnson, and William Kristol, editor and publisher of The Weekly Standard. Thank you all for joining us. Starting with you, William Kristol, how will this debate go down in history?
WILLIAM KRISTOL, The Weekly Standard: I dont think October 6, 1996, will be a date that will go down in history particularly. Our kids wont be asking us what we were doing the night that Bob Dole and Bill Clinton debated. I thought they each did fine. It wasnt a debate that made one embarrassed to be an American or embarrassed to be a Republican and a Dole supporter, or a Democrat and a Clinton supporter, but nothing really memorable I dont think.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Haynes Johnson.
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: I agree with that. This was a debate it really wasnt a debate, but you did get a sense of who they were. And I think what you saw was the authentic Bob Dole, for instance, the Dole that people who have watched him in the Congress over the years, he skirts to the edge. Theres a lacerating quality about him. The remarks about the President on drugs and a few little--he didnt speak--Mr. President, Im going to say that to you even though you didnt afford that courtesy, he said twice, to President Bush--but this was Dole, a warmer person. But it is not going to be one of those moments were going to play back in one single thing like Nixon-Kennedy or any of the others. It was a useful evening in terms of defining differences between them and seeing who they were though.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Doris.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, its interesting. I think it was a classy debate, and for that very reason, it may not live--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Why classy?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: --in--I think both men did well. I think they both showed a certain honorability. There were no gaffs as there--thats what we remember; we remember gaffs like Eastern Europe, when Ford said it wasnt under Soviet domination, or when Carter suddenly mentioned little Amy and nuclear weapons. Nobody did that tonight. There was no real mean-spirited assault in the same way that Dole did in 76, when he blamed the Democrats for the war. There were some mean asides, like Haynes says. And the interesting thing is, though, what would make the whole debate memorable is the only thing that we dont know for sure tonight. It would depend how the American people responded, and its going to take a couple of days for that. After the 76 debate, Ford thought he did really well until the Eastern European thing popped back into his mind.
Kennedy knew immediately in 1960 that he had won that debate hands down, and the difference was it was the first debate, so nobody had ever been exposed that way on television. They dont have that chance now, and its not as close an election, so its hard to imagine this debate will make such a difference. But the very good reasons why it was classy may be why it may not be memorable, and thats okay.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you agree with all that, Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Most of it. I think it was pretty grim. You know, near the end of this debate, President Clinton said to the audience all around America, you can probably tell that we like each other. I certainly wouldnt have been able to tell that just from seeing this debate. And I think this is one of the grimmer debates in American history in the history of presidential politics in terms of the relationship between the two principals that came across on the screen.
Another thing I thought was fascinating, if you go back to 1960, Kennedy vs. Nixon, they basically responded to questions in terms of telling about their positions on issues. This whole thing has become so much of an art at this point that youve got to listen to the interior monologue. 1980, Jimmy Carter kept on trying to convey that Ronald Reagan was risky; Mondale in 84 that Reagan did not know the kind of things a President must know. And obviously Bob Dole came equipped this evening to again and again turn every answer or nearly every answer into an opportunity to convey the idea that Bill Clinton is a liberal, that perhaps he cant be trusted, and is hamstrung by special interests, very much on the offensive, whereas, Bill Clinton came very much defensive, someone who is sitting on his lead with much of the rhetoric we heard in the Chicago convention, bridge to the 21st century, and so on, two candidates with very different purposes.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: But dont you think, Michael, that it seemed like Clinton was much more able to be good about being on the defensive? Unlike Bush in the last debate, where he was really on the defensive and you could feel it, Clinton had a record to go on, so he didnt--he could take responsibility for Somalia. He could take responsibility for the rise in drug use, and he didnt have to feel like he was really under assault. So there was a certain generosity about his being able to defend his record that you cant have when you, yourself, and your record is under assault, as Bush was.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: Well, Charlayne, I think the key point is that Clinton was not under assault--
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Thats right.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: --on the one issue that we wondered whether Dole would assault him on, which is the character issue. That was the dog that did not bark in this debate; Dole barely raised it in the first seventy-five minutes, except really indirectly. Finally, Jim asked Sen. Dole, what about personality, is that a fair--personal differences--is that a fair issue and Sen. Dole made a joke about blood pressure and cholesterol--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Right.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: --and then remembered to raise the pardon issue, which I think he did in a rather indirect way. Clinton disposed of it quickly. Dole did not come back to it. It may be admirable of Sen. Dole not to have gone after Clinton on character but the big question was, was he going to raise that issue explicitly, was he going to really try to say that Bill Clinton isnt fit to be president somehow? He didnt say that, and at a time when the economy is good, the country is at peace, if youre not going to scare people by Clintons second term, which he didnt do, and if youre not going to challenge his character and fitness, its hard to know how--see how you beat an incumbent.
HAYNES JOHNSON: One other thing I thought was fascinating, when you watched them, they were going back and forth on the edge of personal--not Clinton but Dole--but also when you watched Dole, he was far more responsive to government, itself. I helped save Social Security, I am for Medicare, I have supported these programs down the line, so Bills point--
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: My mother is proud of--
HAYNES JOHNSON: Thats right.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: --Social Security.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Exactly. So Bills point is exactly right. If youre trying to distinguish between them, this really didnt draw the line that sharply I dont think.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How different is the Clinton--you mentioned Dole and the meanness business that came out of the 76 campaign, the Democrat wars--what about Clinton, how was he different tonight from say 92? Was he at all--
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Classic distinction between being on the offensive as he was in 1992, able to attack Bush and trying to defend his record this year. One of the arguments that John Kennedy made for instance in 1960 was he thought it was very easy for him to win particularly that first debate in Chicago because he always said it is much easier to attack an incumbents record, in this case the incumbent Vice President Richard Nixon. And I think you saw Bill Clinton probably doing very well both in 92 and in 96 in both of those different roles.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think one difference is that in 92, when Clinton was asked about his patriotism because of his anti-war protests, he really responded very vigorously and talked to Bush about your father defended peoples patriotism against McCarthy. This time he didnt rise to the bait about the drug use.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Briefly, Haynes, how important was this, I mean, especially since history shows that debates have not changed peoples minds? Clinton went in with a very strong lead. What do you think?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I agree with what Doris--and weve all said, I think, in a way that it didnt probably make the difference in the election at this point. Theres one more to come. You dont want to prejudge these things, but I think Marks phrase about buckling the knees, the knock-out punch, if thats what it took, and I do think it took something like that, this didnt do that.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Thank you all.