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The Third Debate: Historians

October 17, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: And 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. Well, just before he closed, Jim mentioned that the Debates Commission wants reaction on the formats of the debate. I know you haven’t had a chance to visit the Web site yet. But what does a town hall meeting, which is a fairly modern form of debate, show us about these candidates that maybe the other ones don’t?

HAYNES JOHNSON: I think it really did work tonight. I don’t usually like those formats but it seemed to me this gave it an intimacy and allowed you to watch them moving around. We’re all Rorschach tests here, we’re inkblots, and we look at things very specially. I thought that this was by far Gore’s best performance. It would be interesting if he loses the election — we may look back to this night, that is what he should have been all along. But he was more comfortable, more fluid. And I thought Bush was the one who looked more stiff tonight.

RAY SUAREZ: Doris, does that test things that are germane to being President? I don’t know how Woodrow Wilson or Herbert Hoover would have done at a town hall.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, you know, the one thing that strikes me about these debates as compared to ones even in the past or 40, 30 years ago, is that they keep talking as if they’re standing out there alone. Look at the number of times they said my plan, this is what I will promise you; I will do this and that. Debaters in the old days used to talk about their parties, what they would do together. And Kennedy talked about the Democratic Party as a great river, that you had to understand its source and its legacy. And something has been lost, I think, on both people’s parts. It’s as if they’re in mortal combat with one another and they don’t call on the past. I think especially for Gore, he has got a strength that’s mystifying to me that he doesn’t call on more, which is the heritage of the Democratic Party on all of these issues that everyone is talking about. Who was the party that put Medicare through in the first place? Who did Social Security? That’s never mentioned. So in some ways I think the guys in the past might have done even better than this because they belonged to something larger than themselves. They talked about the country and history and heritage. These guys are just up there as individuals as if I’m going to do all these things and nobody is going to quite believe that.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard Norton Smith.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It’s curious. I know what you’re saying, Haynes. I think the Vice President was certainly more assertive, more in command of his facts. But I think Governor Bush was in command of his message. He never forgot that message. One line he said, when he said if this were a spending contest I’d come in second — I think it’s not eloquent, it’s not polished but it may very well be powerful. There was an awful lot of inside baseball tonight. And in the annals of campaign history I suspect pass the Dingell Norwood bill is unlikely to go down with 54-40 or fight.

RAY SUAREZ: But it might be in there with Quemoy and Matsu from 1960. Michael Beschloss.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, the other thing you were talking about this venue — one of the ideas of this town hall meeting format was that it sort of mutes the aggression between the two candidates. Bob Dole, for whom Richard once worked in 1996, had come in loaded for bear in this format, had planned to denounce Bill Clinton for his ethics and said later I just couldn’t do it because there were there he was and all these people were in close range – I just didn’t feel that I could go through with it. And the result was he perhaps didn’t attack as much as he might have.

Al Gore was under no such constriction tonight. I think he sort of went back largely to the Al Gore of debate number one, much more aggressive than I would have expected. And I think he sort of rolled the dice tonight. I think he said the down side of this approach is that people will find this overly aggressive in this setting, they might even say this is someone I feel a little bit queasy about as president looking at the body language, but I think he also said if I’m going to turn around this campaign, this is perhaps my last best chance; I’ve got to make the case against George Bush. And that’s sort of the equation I think he followed.

RAY SUAREZ: Have these evenings become an indispensable part of the modern campaign? And if they have, have they proven their value as we look back now over the three and four nights?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, they’re certainly part of the campaign. You’re not going to go back on them. They’re going to have televised debates from here on in. We’ve had them now ever since John Kennedy; that’s 40 years. How decisive they are, this thing is so interesting to me tonight, I agree with Michael, by the way. I think Gore absolutely rolled the dice tonight. And I think a lot of people will not like it. He was in my face, he came over to me; like Rick Lazio versus Hillary Clinton.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It’s almost all he could do.

HAYNES JOHNSON: But in a way it may be that people may respond to that and say finally we’re getting some action here, and we’re getting some really strong action back and forth. So the question is going to be now, how many people watched tonight? We don’t even know that. It went down and down and down. But of those who did and of that small number who are really undecided, did this really make the difference? I can’t answer that tonight. None of us can, I don’t think.

RAY SUAREZ: Have they proven their value for you, Doris?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I think it’s not even a value only for tonight. I think it’s not — like Yogi Berra said it ain’t over when it’s over to mangle him because it is going to continue on for the next week, the next two weeks, as everyone talks about these three debates. So they don’t really end with this single night even if not everyone is watching. No question they’ve got a value. We see them without their armor on. We see them getting better, which is a good thing. They have to prepare more. We see how they can absorb information. It’s not the only thing we need to know about them as President. I mean, there will be courage under fire that they see partly tonight. But you see them able to learn from experience. You see a lot of qualities that will be necessary. Articulateness is one, the ability to communicate in simple language. I don’t know that either one of them is still able to communicate in the human terms. If I had to go out and explain either one of their programs to someone else, I’m not sure I’d be able to. And the one thing Roosevelt could do was to talk in the kind of anecdotal language about lending your hose to the person next door. We need more of that in these debates. But I think they’re incredibly important.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: You know, I don’t think many voters tonight or historians tomorrow are likely to confuse either of these guys with Kennedy and Nixon, but the dynamic I think applies. Forty years ago the question was whether a challenger, untested, could hold his own against a knowledgeable, hugely skilled Vice President. Two weeks ago we were asking that question about George Bush. I don’t know what will happen on election day but I think the case can be made that these four debates– and I would emphasize as well the vice presidential debate– together have at least gotten Bush across the threshold of credibility to the point where he is widely seen as a prospective President.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael, quickly, a last word?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Remember in history the candidate who wins the election has been always the candidate who is seen to have won the debates. If George Bush is seen to have won this debate tonight, that will be at least two in a row, maybe three in a row. That would lead to his election three weeks from now if that is seen that way.

RAY SUAREZ: Guests, thank you all for joining us again tonight. Back to you, Margaret.