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President Ford Assesses Key 1976 Debates in Past Interview

December 27, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theatre was chosen as the site for the first debate. Unlike the four Kennedy-Nixon meetings broadcast from closed television studios, this and the ones that follow were held before a live audience.

When the three major television networks switched live to the Walnut Street Theatre on September 23, 1976, the two major candidates for president of the United States already were in place and ready to debate.

EDWIN NEWMAN, Moderator: Good evening. I’m Edwin Newman, moderator of this first debate of the 1976 campaign…

GERALD FORD: This, I thought, would be the most difficult debate for me, because, in 1975, we had the worst recession in 40-some years, so I knew that Governor Carter was going to attack me on our economic policies.

JIMMY CARTER: He says he’s learned how to match unemployment with inflation. That’s right. We’ve got the highest inflation we’ve had in 25 years right now, and we’ve got the highest unemployment we’ve had under Mr. Ford’s administration since the Great Depression.

Debates 'highly competitive'

JIM LEHRER: Did you go in there with a feeling that, "I can take this guy?" I mean, was it a sense of competition about it that evening for that 90 minutes?

JIMMY CARTER: Yes, there was. This was really the first time I had, you know, had a direct confrontation with President Ford. And, as a matter of fact, although we were hot competitors, I had an admiration for him, because I knew the difficult circumstances under which he had become president.

GERALD FORD: Now, in the case of Mr. Nixon, the reason that the pardon was given was that, when I took office, this country was in a very, very divided condition. There was hatred; there was divisiveness; people had lost faith in their government in many, many respects.

Mr. Nixon resigned, and I became president. It seemed to me that, if I was to adequately and effectively handle the problems of high inflation, a growing recession, the involvement of the United States still in Vietnam, that I had to give 100 percent of my time to those two major problems.

JIMMY CARTER: So there wasn't any personal animosity or vituperation there. There was one of respect for a very worthy opponent, but still a highly competitive atmosphere.

A technical malfunction

JIM LEHRER: But that first debate in Philadelphia is remembered not so much for what was said, but for what wasn't said. With only minutes left in the hour-and-a-half debate, the audio failed.

JIMMY CARTER: One of the very serious things that's happened in our government in recent years, and has continued up until now, is a breakdown in the trust among our people in the...

JIM LEHRER: It took the candidates a few moments to realize they weren't being heard by the television audience.

JIMMY CARTER: I watched that tape afterwards, and it was embarrassing to me that both President Ford and I stood there almost like robots. We didn't move around; we didn't walk over and shake hands with each other. We just stood there.

GERALD FORD: I suspect both of us would have liked to sit down and relax while the technicians were fixing the system, but I also think both of us were hesitant to make any gesture that might look like we weren't physically or mentally able to handle a problem like this.

JIM LEHRER: The delay continued for 27 minutes before the technicians were able to trace the problem to a blown transformer and to replace it.

JIMMY CARTER: Those events, I think to some degree, let the American public size up the candidates, and I don't think either one of us made any points on that deal.

Foreign policy question

JIM LEHRER: However, each candidate experienced his own individual moment of distress during the course of the debates. For President Ford, it came during the second debate in San Francisco. The focus was foreign policy. Max Frankel of the New York Times asked the question.

MAX FRANKEL, New York Times: Mr. President, I'd like to explore a little more deeply our relationship with the Russians. Our allies in France and Italy are now flirting with communism. We've recognized a permanent communist regime in East Germany. We've virtually signed in Helsinki an agreement that the Russians have dominance in Eastern Europe.

GERALD FORD: I'm glad you raised it, Mr. Frankel. In the case of Helsinki, 35 nations signed an agreement, including the secretary of state for the Vatican.

I can't under any circumstances believe that his holiness, the pope, would agree, by signing that agreement, that the 35 nations have turned over to the Warsaw Pact nations the domination of Eastern Europe. It just isn't true.

There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.

MAX FRANKEL: I'm sorry, could I just follow -- did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying most of the countries there and making sure, with their troops, that it's a communist zone?

GERALD FORD: I don't believe, Mr. Frankel, that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union.

Each of those countries is independent, autonomous. It has its own territorial integrity. And the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union.

Effects on the campaign?

JIM LEHRER: Why did you say that?

GERALD FORD: There's no question I did not adequately explain what I was thinking. I felt very strongly that, regardless of the number of Soviet armored divisions in Poland, the Russians would never dominate the Polish spirit. That's what I should have said. I simply left out the fact that, at that time in 1976, the Russians had about 10 to 15 divisions in Poland.

JIM LEHRER: Did you realize there on the stage that night that President Ford had made a serious mistake?

JIMMY CARTER: Yes, I did. And I was prepared to jump in, you know, and take advantage of it. But just on the spur of the moment, I realized that it would serve me better to let the news reporters question President Ford's analysis or his judgment.

JIM LEHRER: Did you have any idea that you had said something wrong?

GERALD FORD: Not at the time. Not at the time. In retrospect, obviously, the inclusion of a sentence or maybe a phrase would have made all the difference in the world.

JIMMY CARTER: This was a very serious mistake that he made, and I don't know if the election turned on it.

JIM LEHRER: I was going to ask you that. Do you think it did?

JIMMY CARTER: I don't know if it did or not, because there are so many factors that can enter a campaign. But certainly it cost him some votes and, as you know, the election was quite close.

GERALD FORD: We ended up losing by only a point and a half, or maybe two points, so any one of a number of problems in the campaign could have made the difference.