JIM LEHRER: Now, what five former presidents think about presidential debates, based on their own experiences. I talked with Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton for a documentary we produced for PBS four years ago.
Here's another look at some of what they had to say.
JIM LEHRER: Generally, Mr. President, do you think these debates should be a required part of the political process, the presidential election process?
RONALD REAGAN: I'm inclined to lean that way, yes because the contest is finally there before there before... the people have a right to know all they can in comparison to make a decision.
But if the debate is concentrated then on the major issues and the views of the two individuals on those issues, then it is of service to the people.
JIM LEHRER: Was it something you looked forward to, something you dreaded? How did you feel about debating?
RONALD REAGAN: Well, I didn't dread it, and having gone through a couple of elections with regard to the governorship, I saw some value in them.
It was a chance for a contrast between the positions of the two individuals, and this is what the people should be voting on.
JIM LEHRER: You had three debates with Jimmy Carter in 1976, and it was your decision to have these debates. You were the incumbent president. Take me through your decision to do this.
GERALD FORD: Well, first, all of my political life, I believed that debates between candidates were important. I firmly believe that debates are in the public interest.
So when we got to 1976 -- and as you may recall, I was 30-some points behind in the polls-- I had to do something to overcome the 30-some points I was behind. So that's why, in my speech accepting the Republican nomination, I challenged Governor Carter to a debate.
JIM LEHRER: Is there a connection between the ability of a person to debate and his or her ability to function as president of the United States? Is it a good measurement?
GERALD FORD: Well, you can get various answers on that. The tough decisions that a president has to make in the Oval Office are in no way related to the capability of a person to do well on television.
On the other hand, the capability of a person to project favorably on television enhances that person's odds of being elected so he can serve in the Oval Office.
JIM LEHRER: Why? Why are they important?
JIMMY CARTER: There are very few opportunities really for the nominees of the two parties to demonstrate to the American people their capabilities and to let the news media -- who might be the interrogators, I presume -- bring to the forefront issues that might actually be significant once a president is in office.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think there is a connection, then, between debating skill and being president of the United States?
JIMMY CARTER: Yes. There is certainly a connection. And I think to get the public on your side, or to explain a difficult issue, or to acknowledge a mistake, or to spell out a circumstance is very important.
And I think if a president can't communicate well, then, in some ways, that president is handicapped in doing a good job.
JIM LEHRER: And a debate would expose that to the American people.
JIMMY CARTER: I think so. And it also... it also makes the candidates realize how important this ability to communicate is.
JIM LEHRER: You've participated in one vice presidential debate and five presidential debates.
Generally, what kind of an experience was it for you?
GEORGE BUSH, SR.: Ugly. I don't like them.
JIM LEHRER: Why not?
GEORGE BUSH, SR.: Well, partially, I wasn't too good at them. Secondly, there's some of it's contrived -- show business. There's a certain artificiality to it, lack of spontaneity to it.
And, I don't know, I just felt uncomfortable about it. In the big league debates-- I mean, in the big-time debates-- those big-time things, it was tension city, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think they should be a required part of the process?
GEORGE BUSH, SR.: No.
JIM LEHRER: No?
GEORGE BUSH, SR.: No, I think you ought to do what's best to get you elected. And if that's best that you have no debates, too bad for you all debate-lovers, because I really think a candidate should be entitled to that.
If there was a guy that stuttered and couldn't say... couldn't finish a sentence, I was the guy who said English was my second language, so maybe I'm a little... (laughter) no, but if you're somebody that looks lousy and has a handicap in speaking and yet is a brilliant contribution as a public servant or an academic, or whatever, I mean, why should that one thing be mandatory-- a place were he's going to come out less well than the opponent who might be a great, big, fine, deep-voice professional debater and absolutely impossible to be president?
So why should a person be burdened with that... that decision to have to debate? I mean, that's my view. Do what's best to get you elected and try be a good president. Now, part of that is taking your case to the people in various ways.
I mean, I don't think you shouldn't have some contact with the American people through public performance, but put me down as negative.
JIM LEHRER: Trained observer that I am, Mr. President, I figured that out, but here you sit, as one of the most successful politicians in modern U.S. History, and yet one of the major vehicles that people use to get elected you despise.
GEORGE BUSH, SR.: I don't know whether it helped me or hurt me get elected I'd like somebody to show me that it helped me to get elected, then I might change my mind, but I don't think so. I don't think so.
JIM LEHRER: As an institution, how important are these presidential debates to the process?
BILL CLINTON: I think they're quite important because, on the whole, they give you the best chance they can get to take the measure of a person under some fire, and to hear people probing their ideas, to see the way they think, and the good thing about the press debates, that is where the members of the press are asking the questions, is they give a reasonable chance for the differences on the critical issues to be made clear.
Secondly, they force you to come to terms with what you really believe, because if you get in a big fight in a debate, unless you're the world's greatest actor, it's hard to sit there and defend a position in a convincing way that you don't really believe.
So even if these debates don't change many votes, having to do them -- and knowing that if you blow it, they will change a lot of votes -- forces people who wish to be president to do things that they should do.
And I am convinced that the debates that I went through, especially those three in 1992, actually helped me to be a better president.
JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner takes it from there.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, an historical analysis of the impact the presidential debates have had in past campaigns, we get it from Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Center for the People and the Press.
Well, Andy, we heard what the former presidents thought of these debates, but you have studied the polls before and after past debates. What does history tell us about when a debate can be decisive?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, generally debates are decisive when it's a close race or when the lead has gone back and forth. Now, the two... we've had eight presidential elections where debates were held in modern times.
In six of these presidential elections, the debates had a measurable impact on the campaign and the candidate's standing. The two that we would exclude would be 1984, the blowout election, Reagan-Mondale and in '96, the blowout election, Clinton-Dole.
In all the others, we saw a real material effect on the race, and in some cases, they played... the debates played a crucial role in the way voters made up their minds.
MARGARET WARNER: Give me a couple of examples.
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, I think the best example is 1980. The American public was down on Carter. They couldn't quite figure out Reagan. There was concerns about whether he was a legitimate leader. He had been a movie actor. Was he too conservative?
And the polls went back and forth. I was with the Gallup Poll then. I remember just before that final debate at the end of the campaign, Carter had pulled even.
And then there was this debate, and Reagan made a good showing and people could say, 'we're comfortable with this alternative because we're down on Carter. We don't think he's performed well.'
MARGARET WARNER: And that takes us to the other common thread of decisive debates.
ANDREW KOHUT: And that is personal character. I mean, in these debates, you get the largest collection of audience, of any campaign event, larger than the conventions, larger than the primary season, and the public looks for clues about the candidates that tell them who they are, what they're like, and if there are questions about their character, they get resolved.
A good example of that was in 1988 when Governor Dukakis was... there were doubts about his strength of character. And he answered a question about what he would do in terms of the death penalty if his wife was murdered and raped.
And that took him out of the election. The public came to the view that he wasn't tough enough; he wasn't strong enough on crime.
MARGARET WARNER: So it is a risk for either candidate in a tight race that if he makes a gaffe or sort of confirms a negative impression about him, it can actually be decisive negatively?
ANDREW KOHUT: That's right. It's also an opportunity. President Bush did reasonably well four years ago relative to Vice President Gore when Gore actually won the debate. People said in the polls he scored the most points, he did a better job, but they didn't like Gore's presentation as much as the way President Bush handled himself.
MARGARET WARNER: And then there's always the famous one -- we heard George Bush, Sr., say how he considered them ugly, he didn't like debates. He had a bad experience in '92.
ANDREW KOHUT: Yes. He looked at his watch and seemed detached if not a little taken away with what was going on, and that sort of tied into the notion that President Bush didn't understand the needs of people and how concerned they were about the economy.
It really wasn't a good experience for him.
MARGARET WARNER: And it was worse because it was the town hall debate, wasn't it, it was the one were voters were actually asking the questions?
ANDREW KOHUT: That's right. It seemed as if he were saying, 'I have better things to do.' I'm sure he didn't feel that way, but that's what came across.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, would you say both the elements he said are important, that is a very close race and one where there are doubts about personal qualities, are present in this week's debate?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, we certainly have had a very close race for much of the campaign here. The two candidates are in a horse race.
We now have the polls mostly showing a Bush lead, but there is a Bush lead not because Bush is... the public is completely contented with him, but because people have concerns about Kerry's character and his strength of leadership, and they're going to be looking at that.
MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, Andy, I know you polled recently on this. What are voters telling you about how likely they are to watch? How many people are likely to watch this first debate?
ANDREW KOHUT: 61..62 percent said they're very likely to watch. That's up from 43 percent four years ago in a comparable survey. This is going to be a very big audience, especially the first debate.
They generally attract more interest. This is a high-stakes election. This could be one of the defining moments of the campaign if not the defining moment of the campaign.
MARGARET WARNER: Andy Kohut, thanks so much.