JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, as the candidates look forward to their upcoming debates, a unique look at past debate experiences.
Jim Lehrer has talked to almost all the presidential and vice presidential candidates since 1976. Their candid comments are included in a PBS special called “Debating Our Destiny.”
Here’s an excerpt, focusing on the 2000 debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush.
JIM LEHRER: Were there moments in any of these debates when you thought, oh, my, the whole election, the whole nine yards is on the line here; I can make a mistake, give a bad answer, do something dumb or do something, you know, inappropriate, and blow the whole thing?
GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: You know, I didn’t — I don’t go into the debates that way. I was pretty well prepared, I thought.
No, you really go into the debate thinking about how to make sure that you speak as clearly as possible. And it’s really a process of quick reaction and clear thinking, and then trying to make sure that you’re able to lay it out, so the average guy can understand what you’re saying.
JIM LEHRER: One of the top issues of the 2000 campaign was what to do with the federal budget surplus, a problem the “NewsHour’s” Paul Solman reported on the day of the first debate.
PAUL SOLMAN: But, now, suddenly, the government is running a surplus, an estimated $230 billion this year alone, and, as projected by the Congressional Budget Office, roughly $4.5 trillion over the next decade.
JIM LEHRER: The candidates agreed with that surplus projection, but disagreed over what to do about it.
AL GORE, Former Vice President of the United States: I will make sure that we invest in our country and our families. And I mean investing in education, health care, the environment, and middle-class tax cuts, and retirement security.
JIM LEHRER: Governor Bush, one-minute rebuttal.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, we do come from different places. I come from West Texas. I have been a governor. The governor is the chief executive officer and learns how to set agendas. I want to take one half of the surplus and dedicate it to Social Security, one-quarter of the surplus for important projects. And I want to send one-quarter of the surplus back to the people who pay the bills.
AL GORE: I agree that the surplus is the American people’s money. It’s your money. That’s why I don’t think we should give nearly half of it to the wealthiest 1 percent, because the other 99 percent have had an awful lot to do with this building this surplus and our prosperity.
JIM LEHRER: Governor, one minute.
GEORGE W. BUSH: The man is practicing fuzzy math again.
JIM LEHRER: That term, “fuzzy math,” became one of George Bush’s favorite lines of the debate.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Zingers. I think, when — you know, Ronald Reagan in 1980 came up with some zingers, and that became, you know, the measure of success, to a certain extent.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I’m beginning to think not only did he invent the Internet, but he invented the calculator.
It’s fuzzy math. I can’t let the man continue with fuzzy math.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Unless there is there is the zinger, or kind of the cute line or whatever, the quotable moment, there’s no victor, in a sense.
JIM LEHRER: In fact, Vice President Gore became increasingly animated in response.
GEORGE W. BUSH: There’s a problem.
I want to say something, Jim. Wait a minute.
JIM LEHRER: OK.
GEORGE W. BUSH: This man has been disparaging my plan with all this Washington fuzzy math. This is a man whose plan excludes 50 million Americans.
AL GORE: Not so.
JIM LEHRER: And, a few times, Gore could be heard sighing off camera.
GEORGE W. BUSH: And I told you the criteria on which I will appoint judges. I have a record of appointing judges in the state of Texas. That’s what a governor gets to do.
JIM LEHRER: Remember, that was the sighing and all that. Explain that.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I didn’t have any idea it was going on. I really didn’t. I was so focused. When it was over, somebody — I can’t remember who it was, Karen or Karl Rove or somebody — said, you’re not going to believe that Al — Al Gore’s facial expressions really cost him the debate, they thought.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Gore was the only major candidate who declined to be interviewed for “Debating Our Destiny.” It begins airing this week on most PBS stations. Check your local listings for the time.