Historians Discuss the Second Debate: Governor Bush and Vice President Gore
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GWEN IFILL: With me are presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss and journalist and author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is Richard Norton Smith, presidential historian and biographer. Doris, I was struck by something that George W. Bush said at the end of the health care question in which he talked about the need for change, and if you want change, then you should vote for me, which echoed for me from 1992. Can that work when the economy is doing so well?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: It is a much harder thing to make that case when people are feeling pretty good not only about where we are right now but about the direction of the country. In fact in some ways I thought Cheney made the point better last time by talking consistently about reform, reforming the military, reforming Social Security, reforming health care, making some use of what we hadn’t done in the last eight years. The lines were blurred tonight. I think deliberately. Gore, wanting to appear gentlemanly, lost some of the vigor in making those differences sharp, and I think Bush, it’s all to his interest to have those lines blurred because if it’s on the issues as everyone has said from the polls, the Democrats have an edge. So I think the question is they both learned from last week. I think Mr. Bush did show greater command — more important than his lack of bumbling was he showed more conviction and force in defending his position and clearly, Gore was more of a gentleman tonight.
GWEN IFILL: Haynes, I was struck by the fact that the only person who seemed to mention Clinton’s name tonight was Jim Lehrer and even when Al Gore referred to it, he said the administration I was a part of.
HAYNES JOHNSON: When I came here, the administration. Well, it’s in the background, it’s not going to be talked about. From his standpoint, Gore’s standpoint, he’s right; he has to assert himself as the future. And I think your question to Doris is the key one. Going into this debate tonight, there are two questions before the country: One was — can the governor make a case for change in the case of a great huge prosperity? Is it an urgent need for change, reform, whatever it is. I don’t think he has done that yet. The other question Mark keeps talking about — I agree with — did he seem comfortable? Did he make people feel comfortable? And I think in that sense the more you watch, the more people are going to feel hey, he could be the president, and I think to that extent he helped himself tonight. But one other point, the debate part about the Texas record, I thought, and the question about the hate crimes and what we’re going to do with, there was one riveting moment to me when he talked about the execution. Hey, you know what we’re going to do to these three guys, we’re going to execute them. I mean, that was sort of a jolting thing. It made you sort of wow, sit up. I don’t know how the people are going to react to that but it was a very stark moment I thought.
GWEN IFILL: Richard, there is some commentary that at the beginning of the debate everyone seemed to be getting along famously. That’s when they were talking about foreign affairs. Is that an extension of the old politics stopping at the water’s edge idea?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: No, I think that’s a result of the new polls that told them….
GWEN IFILL: You’re such a cynic.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: They struck out last week. Well, you know, we set a pretty low threshold for tonight. I mean, basically the vice president only had to be less annoying and the governor only had to be more coherent. And I think both of them passed those tests. I think this resembled the vice presidential debate in format only. I mean, I really do think there is a significant contrast in what we saw last week, the caliber of the discussion, the conviction that we saw, the lack of artifice, the spontaneity, the passion, if you will, and I thought this was a rather theme-less pudding of an evening. But I do think Haynes is right. I think that to the extent that people see and get comfortable with George Bush and he passes that threshold of credibility, these debates are working.
GWEN IFILL: Any evidence here Michael of the vision thing?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes but implicitly — and that’s something that Bush I think has not made, done as sharply as he probably could because the argument he wants to make is this guy is for big government. I’m for more limited government. That’s really more in the spirit of the times — as evidence Bill Clinton in 1996 saying that the era of big government is over. But I agree, I thought George Bush looked fully presidential tonight as did Al Gore. And this could end up doing for George W. Bush what both debates in 1980 did for Ronald Reagan. Both Reagan’s debate with Anderson — John Anderson the third party candidate in September — and his famous debate with Jimmy Carter in October, which was not only that Reagan did a good job of making his case, but people looked at this man and said, this is someone that I could be comfortable with as president. They did not feel that way at the beginning of the 1980 campaign.
GWEN IFILL: Ifill: Doris, what about the credibility issue? We heard the word several times but out of George W. Bush’s mouth when he was talking about the Middle East, interestingly enough, but not directly. He didn’t take it on directly — except in Jim’s question about the exaggerations. Does that work? Does it stick?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well I think it certainly is sticking among the media and among the campaign that Bush is putting out in terms of advertisements. And I think Gore was smart to simply concentrate on the desk issue, on how many days the girl stood because that was less troubling in some ways than some of his other embellishments which really do cast his need to be in the center stage when he’s not really there and make you think of Lyndon Johnson talking about his great, great grandfather dying at the battle of the Alamo when he never was there — never died there. That, in itself, is not important but when the president gets into trouble as he did in Vietnam, as Reagan who embellished stories got into in Iran-Contra. Then the credibility and the lack of trust can really be a lost resource for a president. There is no way in saying that he is up to that point right now but it’s something he has got to be careful of because you lose little bits of trust along the way.
GWEN IFILL: Haynes, we heard a lot of personal bio — Al Gore talking about his grandchild and very personal bio — and George W. Bush. Does that work versus political bio, which we — biography?
HAYNES JOHNSON: You can’t separate them. I think what we saw last week was Mr. Gore going too far with the people in the audience — all these personal things, they seemed like artifices. Tonight it seemed natural — he talked about his grandson… he talked about the future, I thought that was very effective. I also think that when Jim raised that question at the end about the credibility, that was a very interesting response there, because clearly Gore had prepared himself to say that, yeah, I’ll get it right for the people. The big things I will get right, and then Bush came back very quickly with that very sharp response later, there you go exaggerating again, in effect, and I thought that was one of the memorable moments in the whole campaign tonight.
GWEN IFILL: Did he dig himself out of that hole Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think he did, and I think one thing that just really came through to me, especially in this setting, you know, compare it to that vice presidential debate last week. These are two guys who really do not like each other. You know, usually presidential candidates at least during the campaign, there’s a natural antipathy. At the beginning of the 1960 campaign JFK said, you know, I like Nixon — but by the end of the year I’ll get to hate him — and he almost did. But I’ve never seen the kind of veiled hostility that I sure saw in the first debate and I thought was only a little bit more under wraps tonight.
GWEN IFILL: Quickly, do you think that this is going to make a difference for the third debate?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes, of course. The difference will be made when people like us sit around and pollsters sit around and tell the people what they thought happened tonight. And then the campaigns will filter that out and they’ll devise a strategy for round three.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I hope we’re not the only ones watching.
GWEN IFILL: Thanks everybody.