TOPICS > Politics

Debates Past

October 4, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHALAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: We get that longer view from three NewsHour regulars, presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, journalist and author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is Thomas Patterson, professor of government and the press at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He specializes in television’s role in presidential campaigns. Thank you all for joining us. Haynes Johnson, starting with you, how significant have television debates been to the modern campaign?

HAYNES JOHNSON, Author/Journalist: Everything–that red light up there is politics now. Tip O’Neill used to say all politics is local. All of our national politics is television. So it’s the one time when the whole country will focus on the person who might be the next president. It probably isn’t utterly decisive in the, in the issues of the debate. It doesn’t tell you who’s going to be a great president or a weak president, but you do form impressions. And watching those vignettes that we just saw, those wonderful clips, you watched Kennedy and Nixon in 1960. And if you closed your eyes, Nixon sounds great. If you looked at what we just saw, Nixon was awkward, ill at ease, Kennedy looked poised, graceful, ready to go, so the people form an impression. And I think that’s the large thing, short of the gaff, I mean, Jerry Ford’s wonderful, terrible remark about Poland being not in the Soviet empire sphere was disastrous to him, but it probably didn’t decide the election either.

CHALAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thomas Patterson, you’ve been studying this, as I just indicated in your introduction. What do you think of the significance of this and the impact of–a significance of debates and television in particular?

THOMAS PATTERSON, Political Scientist: (Boston) Oh, I think debates are very important for the American public. You know, even a poorly watched debate will draw seventy/seventy-five million viewers. And that’s five times what the next largest audience, the convention audience is. And if you look at how people respond to the debates, the debates mean a lot to them. It increases interest in the campaign. Interest rises. It’s not only the 90 minutes that they’re in front of their television sets, but most people talk about the debates afterward.

They pay a little more attention to news accounts of the campaign. I think you could even argue that the ’92 debates saved the campaign. In September, Americans were very soured on the campaign and Perot’s reentry into the race perked the campaign up a bit, and then the four debates in October, and by the end of October, people were into the campaign, and we had a 5 percent increase in voter turnout. So that I think in terms of connecting the American public to the campaign, the debates are probably the central events.

CHALAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you agree with that, Doris Kearns Goodwin?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Oh, absolutely. And I think the reason they connect the American voter to the campaign is it’s like a championship fight. It’s one-on-one, unless, of course, it was ’92, when it was three. But, nonetheless, you feel a sense that you’re watching these candidates under pressure. And what matters even more than what they say is how do they respond to that pressure. The thing that I think was so interesting about the gaps that we’ve seen over time is that each one reinforced when it was really a problem, a weakness that the character had. Nixon, it wasn’t just that he was sweating in 1960. He looked shifty. He looked furtive. And that was what we worried about for his character.

When Reagan looked wandering in that closing address, it reinforced the age problem. When Dukakis answered the question about the rape of his wife without any passion at all, it reinforced does this guy really have passion? When Bush didn’t know how to respond to the woman who asked him about how the economy was affecting him, it reinforced that he was out of touch. When Ford was unable to answer the question correctly about Eastern Europe, it made his brains become a question, which already was. So I think when the debate brings up something that already is something we worry about in these people, then it can really have an enormous impact, but even without that, we see whether or not we like the way these two candidates can stand up and to what must be incredibly scary for them.

CHALAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What, what has it been mostly in the past, Michael Beschloss, substance that the people, that resonates with the people, or body language, or what seems to–

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: What we tend to remember is not really big exchanges on substantive issues. One reason for that is that the answers are fairly short, and these debates are very few, and the length of time for each debate is really pretty small when you think about it. You remember something like 1960. Kennedy and Nixon got sidetracked on Qumoy and Matsu, these two Chinese off-shore islands that were in jeopardy. That did not turn out to be a very important issue a the Kennedy administration. I think the main thing is that people are really making a judgment whether they want to look at one of these guys as president for the next four or eight years. We experience presidents mainly on television but comfort level is very important.

John Kennedy in 1960 was in a position where many people questioned the value of having someone who was 43 years old. They couldn’t quite imagine him in the White House. Kennedy on the screen looked very presidential. It made people resolve a lot of their doubts. The same thing was true with Ronald Reagan in 1980. Many people felt that this was an ex-actor, someone who was in California, perhaps with not the kind of experience that presidents have. He was really able to close the sale. The most important thing, however, I think that you really do learn from debates is how well a candidate is able to communicate with the American people and potentially educate them about sacrifices that they might be required to make. That’s something the debates do extremely well.

CHALAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Does the format matter, Haynes Johnson?

HAYNES JOHNSON: It does matter, but I think the larger thing that we’re all saying in a different way is what you take away the impression you have over the person who might be president. You know, Walter Lipman had this wonderful phrase. “We’re all captives of the pictures in our heads.” And what you take away from that very complex but personal view of television is, is exactly–that’s the critical part. Format does matter, but it’s really we’re looking at those people and how they respond, and it does tell you something. It’s–there’s nothing else quite like it. If I could just digress, there was a wonderful picture of Jack Kennedy and Dick Nixon after their first debate, and if you never saw it, they’re embracing each other, and the look in their face–echoing what Doris said–no two people have ever gone through such terrible tension as they had just experienced. So they understand what no one else–what it had been like to be in that test tube of pressure.

CHALAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Thomas Patterson, what does your research tell you about people who have opinions, who’ve made up their minds coming into debates? Do debates ever change their minds?

THOMAS PATTERSON: Well, the principal effect of the debate is to reinforce the opinions that people bring to the debate, but maybe for 10 to 15 percent of the viewers in most debates, you know, it changes their thoughts about the candidates, but the principal effect of debates is essentially to reinforce the vote that’s already there, but if you think about the way that voters connect with these debates, I think it’s important to emphasize the significance of issues in that connection. We know that voters want both style and substance from the candidates. And where they’re most responsive to the candidates are when the candidates are talking about issues they care about, connecting them to their lives, uh, and talking about them persuasively in a presidential manner, so I think you can’t separate this whole issue of style and substance. It’s really a combination of the two.

CHALAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Michael Beschloss, you all seem to be agreeing. I’ve seen some columnists disagree about the importance of these debates but they’re not here. But if they are this important, by this group consensus, why before 1960 weren’t there any?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: One reason was that television was not the factor in politics that it really was beginning around 1960, and the other thing it just really was not part of the American tradition. You know, it was only in 1932 that Franklin Roosevelt actually accepted the nomination in the convention hall. Before then, that would have been considered very aggressive for a candidate to actually appear on the convention floor. The interesting thing is that after 1960, if you go back to that year, many people were saying this is now going to be a tradition, any candidate will only refuse to debate at his peril, it went on for 16 years that there were not debates. Johnson and Nixon did not want to give an opening to their opponents, and it actually began accidentally in 1976. Gerald Ford in Kansas City at the convention was 33 points behind. He felt that he had to do something daring. He thought, well, why not propose debates with Jimmy Carter, and it was only the fact that Ford happened to do that as a campaign tactic that this thing that we now think of as a tradition for all these years really resumed.

CHALAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Briefly, Doris, Clinton and Dole set aside three days this week, Clinton in a secluded resort in upstate New York, Dole in a hotel room in Florida, to prepare. How does that compare with presidential preparation in the past?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, the interesting thing is that Kennedy did prepare for days actually with people giving him questions, but then on the very last day of the debate, he decided to relax, to replenish his energies. He took a nap. He got up, refreshed. He took the questions in his hand and he’d just spin them off his bed when he was finished with them, and he was able to smile and be with people. Nixon, by contrast, spent that last day completely alone, incommunicado, and I think his nervousness just increased. Ever since the time of 1976, when the debates came back, they’ve all prepared. They all have mock people who have questions and answers, but I think the real question is, is the preparation so deep inside of them that when that day comes they can at least begin to relax and not think they’re still boning up as if for an exam.

CHALAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, we’ll see you on Sunday. Thank you all for joining us.