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The Vice Presidential Debate: Historians

October 5, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


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.

Michael, we’ve seen the surrogates shadow boxing kind of exercises in the past vice presidential debates. How did this one measure up?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I thought this was probably the most evenly matched vice presidential debate I’ve ever seen. And, you know, it had a little bit of the air of almost a U.S. Senate debate in Michigan or Pennsylvania, and in a way it was because those are the votes, those states, states like them, that these two guys are trying to get. It was sort of that moderate sense of being around the table.

A couple of things did surprise me. One was that Dick Cheney who at the Republican convention in Philadelphia had this big attack on Clinton and Gore almost like an avenging grandfather — remember he said we all know the Clinton-Gore routine and help is on the way. There was almost none of that tonight; it was a very different person.

And in Lieberman’s case he said at the beginning of the debate, I’m not going to engage in personal attacks, but he came pretty close in mentioning — using the words “big-time,” which referred to George W. Bush’s insult against the New York Times reporter and Dick Cheney agreeing with this, in Illinois, a small lapse.

But the main thing is you know why these two guys were picked. Cheney, and I think you’ll never again hear why was Dick Cheney on this ticket; he lends Bush seriousness, in Lieberman’s case he was solid and centered and that very much helps Al Gore.

GWEN IFILL: Doris, both of these candidates seem to be very well aware of the history of these kinds of debates. I don’t know if you heard Dick Cheney at the end lean over to Joe Lieberman and say, you see I didn’t wear a watch tonight, so I wouldn’t repeat the mistake that George Bush, Sr., made several years ago. How did it measure up to you?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, you know, what struck me most was that people have talked previously about the cautious tone. I think that’s a very good thing for America in a certain sense. Think about the issues they dealt with tonight: abortion, gays and lesbians, race, and each one of them reached across to the other side.

I had the feeling not just about the kangaroo ticket part that Mark raised, but what if one of these guys could be president and the other one leader of the opposition party — maybe something could get done. So it shows they made an assessment that for that part of the country that they want to reach, that rhetoric of even four or eight years ago, which was so vitriolic on social issues, is no longer going to work. Obviously also your question suggests that they didn’t want to make any of the mistakes in the past, the gaff that made Dole the hatchet man forever by talking about the Democratic wars or the personal attacks that people remember.

And I think America wins in that respect. I found it a very good debate. It may not have been what the dramatists want, but I thought it was good for the country to raise those issues in such a decent way.

GWEN IFILL: Richard Norton Smith, Doris mentions the “Democrat wars” comment that Bob Dole made in 1976. But tonight bipartisanship seemed to be the coin of the realm.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yeah. This was flat out the best vice presidential debate ever and arguably the most substantive, thoughtful, enlightening debate in memory. These are obviously serious men. It was interesting. But sometimes they were also surprising. I thought Cheney, of all people, handled the questions on the environment and Social Security, better than either he or Bush have throughout the campaign. I thought throughout this evening you saw the compassionate conservative.

For his part I thought Senator Lieberman — perhaps surprisingly — handled the issue of military readiness very effectively. Abortion remains the divisive in many ways defining issue, but even there Cheney tried to reach out to find a middle ground, to stress themes throughout the evening of bipartisanship. I will repeat what I said in Los Angeles. Before this campaign is over, millions of voters will wish they could vote for these guys for president instead of the guys at the head of the ticket.

GWEN IFILL: Haynes Johnson, is this what has to happen now in a vice presidential debate, no longer can they be the attack dogs, no longer can they be the ones throwing aspersions on the presidential candidates, it becomes a very civil meeting of the minds around a curved table?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes, I think what we’ve seen tonight is a wonderful example of the end of this attack stuff that people hate. And you saw it over and over again. The American people should feel very good tonight. They have two people that are clearly responsible, informed, intricate issues they could explain clearly. I think it was a wonderful debate, all my colleagues have said this and I want to say amen to it.

It also does raise some questions about the future. This ticket at the bottom looks in some ways better than the ticket at the top. But I do think what Paul Gigot said is maybe critical politically. If it’s a tie, and you could argue that it was, then I agree with Paul, this is a vote for the status quo. In other words, the case was not made that strong to make a big change from this moment we’re in right now.

GWEN IFILL: You know, Michael, in past debates they have said things like Dan Quayle didn’t do well against Lloyd Bentsen, but it didn’t stop George Bush from getting elected. Is there anything about this debate which can affect – based on what we know from the past — can affect the outcome of this election?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No, there wasn’t a big mistake like Bob Dole with the Democrat wars, or a victor going against the opponent as Lloyd Bentsen was able to do by saying to Dan Quayle “you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

And I think something that Haynes said I think is very right, and that is you circle all the way back to the beginning of the debates, 1960. John Kennedy was running against Richard Nixon, vice president to a very popular president, Eisenhower, peace and prosperity. Yet, Kennedy kept on saying yes, the last eight years you may like things about them, but it’s not enough, I’m not satisfied. Nixon later on said in his memoirs one of the toughest things that you have to do if you’re a candidate like that is to defend a record rather than attack. In a way, Bush and Cheney have the easier job, and I agree, they’ve not done it as effectively as they’re going to have

GWEN IFILL: Doris, in the end this vice presidency we’re talking about – the warm bucket of you know what. So what does it matter to anybody that these two guys seem to get along so well?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You know, it’s interesting in that first debate of ’76, when Dole was the vice presidential candidate. He said, this is crazy; why are we doing this — we’re the men making the policies, we’re the second guys in command. You should watch football instead of doing this. But, instead, it does matter because it’s the first big decision a presidential candidate makes and it reflects absolutely on him. And I think that’s why we’re all saying both men reflected on the President. And also, as we’ve said before, the vice presidency is so much more powerful now. He’s a great key adviser to the President; often likely to become the next nominee.

And I think that was playing in the hands, certainly of Lieberman tonight. You don’t want to be a hatchet guy and lose your chance to be liked if you have a chance down the line, he’s young enough, maybe even Cheney is young enough, and I think they don’t want to screw it up in that sense.

GWEN IFILL: Briefly, Haynes, do you think it worked?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes, I do think so. And I think that in this case particularly Cheney was very good, so Lieberman also showed himself to be presidential.

GWEN IFILL: And, Richard does it make a difference?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Yes, and particularly will see what happens with the next debate. If tonight was part of a process, you heard Dick Cheney talking about a new cause for a new era — interesting. He repeated that phrase several times. If that is the beginning of what is significant in the Bush campaign, an overarching theme, then this evening will be real progress.

GWEN IFILL: Thank you all very much.