October 3, 2000
MARGARET WARNER: Now an historical look at presidential debates and to Gwen Ifill.
GWEN IFILL: We get that longer view now from NewsHour regulars presidential
historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and journalist
and author Haynes Johnson. Joining them tonight is historian Richard
Norton Smith, executive director of the Gerald R. Ford Foundation and
Professor of History at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids,
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: You'll probably remember one moment, maybe two of what happened tonight, and not only will that overshadow most of the rest of the campaign, probably 20 years from now sitting here on the NewsHour talking about that ancient debate in the year 2000....
GWEN IFILL: I'm hoping that won't be me, Michael
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I don't want to lay odds for the rest of us either, Gwen, but if we're doing it or someone else is, they'll will b likely talking about what happens tonight or perhaps one or two moments later in the campaign. It's a wonderful thing about debates. It flushes out issues. If Lyndon Johnson in 1964 or Richard Nixon in 1968 had been in debates, they would have been forced to level with the American people about what they would do about the Vietnam War; without the debates, they did not. The downside is oftentimes with can get so focused on one moment that can turn a campaign, oftentimes that's unfair to a candidate. Gerald Ford in 1976, the famous slip he made in saying there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. People thought that showed that he wasn't able to run foreign policy. In retrospect, I think if you match Ford as a foreign policymaker against Jimmy Carter, Ford would have measured up very well.
GWEN IFILL: Richard, there have not always been debates. This was not always a foregone conclusion
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: No, not at all. Everyone thinks it began on n 1960 with Kennedy in Nixon. In fact, in 1948, the first great debate in modern American politics on the radio it was between Thomas Dewey, the governor of New York, and Harold State House, a serious candidate. He actually had beaten Dewey in a couple contests. Dewey got to decide the ground rules. Then, as now, that matters. He said there would be a one-hour radio debate on one topic, which he chose. Shall we outlaw the Communist Party in the United States? Dewey, the old prosecutor took the negative. He cleaned the guy's clock and went on to win the nomination. Today that probably would not have happened on TV. Tom Dewey was five foot seven; Harold Stassen was six foot three. One of Dewey's staffers functions was to keep tall people out of pictures with the governor. It probably never would have been allowed to happen on television.
GWEN IFILL: So, Haynes, what it is these candidates tonight have to learn, have to take from previous debates?
HAYNES JOHNSON: They have got to be themselves, whatever that is. The wonderful thing about it, this is so chemical. Nobody can describe exactly what we all bring to it. We're going the see something, as Michael says. There will be a moment that will tell you something about that person. And it's individual. It's not you, me, we're all different. We're all going to bring something who we are -- our biases, our prejudices, our backgrounds, what we hope. We're going to look at those things. I've watched the Kennedy- Nixon debates three times in the last two weeks, and I'm absolutely riveted to see, it isn't just the facial expressions, it's the body language, just the body language - the sort of awkwardness with which Nixon sat and the way he walked, so forth, that made an impression. You've got to reassure people. This is the President of the United States. I've wondered, Richard, how would Lincoln have done on the debate. Talk about big, tall, gangly man, this awkward look. But would he have done well in today's age of television?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It would have been another radio debate.
GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Doris. How do you think that would have happened in the pre TV debate days, if we had had a chance to hear from other candidates?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I think somehow the mind, the curiosity, I'd like to believe that the American citizens are more sophisticated to look at the looks. In fact, when you look back at the Kennedy-Nixon thing, everyone talks about the fact that Nixon was sweating. I don't think that's what it was. I think that Kennedy projected a certain maturity that people weren't sure he had. So, it was the overall impression that really matters more than these one liners, more than the things we turn it on. I think what happens too often with analysts is we take that dramatic moment, the funny moment, the blunder, and all I can say, as a citizen tonight, I hope that what this debate turns on is that one of them comes out better able to prove to the people, "I'm ready to be President; I will be comfortable - as Mark said earlier -- my voice is okay. You can listen to me for four years," rather than that one makes a terrible error. I mean, I don't want it to be like it was for Ford, making that blunder, or for Dukakis making the blunder in his response about whether his wife had been raped and murdered. That always makes me remember the people who drop the ball at the last moment or somehow fumble at the last moment. So let's hope that that's not what it turns on because otherwise for these poor characters to have to go to bed tonight and think, oh, my God, I'm never going to hear "Hail to the Chief" because I said one thing wrong. I don't want that.
GWEN IFILL: What about that echo chamber, Richard, is that really a problem?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It's a terrible problem. And I think when people talk about the Kennedy- Nixon debates, what they really mean is the first debate -- and the unflattering image of Richard Nixon. When they talk about Ford-Carter, they forget that Ford closed a 30-point gap despite that one gaffe. The danger of this process tonight is that while we're watching the debate, we're being watched. Some of us are actually going to be electronically wired. There are focus groups all over America. And the echo chamber of the media overnight tomorrow morning will decide, will distill some kind of conventional thinking. And that 24 hours from now may be something different from what we think we saw at the moment we saw it.
GWEN IFILL: Is the way a candidate, Michael, handles him or herself -- himself in tonight's case - in a debate -- does that tell us anything about what kind of president they might be?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It does in one very important way. That is in the television age, we have to look at this guy night after night for four years. If you're not comfortable with that person, he's going to have a very hard time asking you particularly at a moment of sacrifice to, for instance, put your children in harm's way or raise taxes or something that people don't like-- and this is what I worry about because Gerald Ford is a very good example of what Richard was talking about and the others, that echo chamber -- people who saw the debate didn't focus on the comment on Eastern Europe; it was only 24 hours later after they had heard what the analysts had said that Ford's numbers began to plunge. And Nixon shows that too in 1960. One reason why Nixon looked rattled, not very presidential to use the word that we use nowadays, they didn't use it in those days, was Nixon had been ill. He had hit his knee on a car door, had lost about 15 pounds. And when he got to the studios, he was getting out of the car - he hit his knee again and was literally in physical pain. And so this is the problem with this thing because if everything rests on your performance in one night, if you've got a stomachache or headache or someone steps on your toe hard as you're walking on to the stage, that can make a difference.
GWEN IFILL: Doris, missing from the stage tonight are the third party candidates. There have been third party candidates involved in debates before. Does that make a difference?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, it certainly did in 1992. And I think there was a good reason why Bush was stalling. But in the end he realized that he had to have Perot in because everyone wanted Perot's supporters. Once you had Perot in there as the third party candidate and Clinton, both of them talking against the status quo, it was like two against one for Bush. Much earlier Carter did not want Anderson in as a third party candidate, saying he didn't want to give him exposure because he knew that Anderson would have some of the same supporters that he would have. So he kept stalling and stalling up to the point where finally Reagan and Anderson debated each other. And then there were big cartoons of a high chair with a little baby Carter in it, a petulant kid who wouldn't debate. And luckily for Carter by the time he finally agreed to debate, Anderson's support had dropped below 10% so he was able to get Reagan alone. But then it didn't help him since he didn't do so great in that debate where all the attention was then put on him.
GWEN IFILL: How about that, Haynes, does it matter really if there are third party candidates, whether they're involved or not?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes. It does. It does matter. The example she gave is exactly right. But we don't have it now. And what it's going to come to is, I hate this word image -- the pictures that you see, people who listened to the Nixon debate with Kennedy, the first one on radio thought Nixon did much better. They didn't see it. So again, come back to this idea that it's not fate, but somehow we're in an age of pictures and images, and we form reassurance, comfort - who - what do we want in a President - and that's what people are going to be looking for tonight.
GWEN IFILL: Is there no value in images, just by themselves?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Sure.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Sure. And the camera doesn't lie; usually Americans have a very good ability, I think, to see through someone. The problem is this is one night when probably 80 million people are going to be watching. And if one of these candidates flubs it tonight, it's going to be very hard for him to come back. If there were, let's say, a dozen debates during the course of the campaign, which I would prefer, that kind of thing doesn't happen. There's not that sort of gladiator aspect to the debate that we're all feeling very much tonight
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: We haven't talked about the issues. That matters, too. It's how they express themselves -- how can they explain it. Is it clear? Does it make sense? Do I say, "yeah, that's right. Now I understand what you're really talking about."
GWEN IFILL: Someone asked me not too long ago if I could remember an issue that came out of a debate and I couldn't. I could only remember gaffes. How much of a disservice is that - or is it a disservice when it doesn't get discussed?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: It is a distortion. But I think -- we've talked about this earlier -- this is going to be about issues. And I think it's - I saw the Pew Poll - that might surprise people. It showed that fewer of 50% of those who are polled can with any degree of accuracy tell you what Al Gore's position is on tax cuts or George Bush's position is on prescription drugs. So in that sense, tonight is a classroom for 80 million or 90 million people.
GWEN IFILL: Doris, do we fall victim to -- are debates really a reliable leading indicator of what kind of a president this candidate will be?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I think we do fall victim somewhat to the hype. I mean, it's because it's a dramatic moment. The person is without armor. There's no handlers around. It's as if his girdle is off. So there's potentially a moment for spontaneity. So it has a drama to it that makes all the media people and the historians want to see it. But even if you look at Ford, in '76, for example, and everyone says, yes, maybe he lost it that night, the fact is that Watergate had been there hurting him, the pardon of Nixon had hurt him. The reason he agreed to the debate and wanted it in the first place was because he was so far down. So you have the look at the thing as a long race, and I think we overemphasize debates because they come at tend and because they're so dramatic, just like an 11th inning homerun would be.
GWEN IFILL: Reporter: Another baseball reference. Good for you. Overemphasized, Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think they are. Also people remember what they see. The eye takes in things that oftentimes hold you than information you take in through the ear and sometimes read. That's one downside with these bates. But I want to end by saying thank God that we have them, because it really does smoke these candidates out. The worst thing is if you've got a situation where a candidate can get through a campaign, be entirely packaged, be only in settings that he chooses and not be forced to answer on basic issues of the time
HAYNES JOHNSON: And that's really the important thing. There are two people side by side, and we're going to look at them. They have a chance to sort of express how they think the country ought to go. No intermediaries, just our friend, Jim Lehrer, asking questions to the two of them face to face; that's the way it ought to be.
GWEN IFILL: The way it ought to be?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: The way it ought to be. But it's ironic. These debates came back in 1976 as a Hail Mary pass by a desperate President. A quarter century later tonight, they may be desperation, but these are going to be carefully scripted, so controlled that spontaneity may not break out.
GWEN IFILL: We had a baseball reference and a football reference, I think we can leave it there. Thank you all. We'll see you all later tonight.