JIM LEHRER: The 2000 presidential debates came at a time of relative calm. Americans mostly felt good about themselves and their place in the world. That was before there was 9/11 when the calm and much of the good feeling was blown away.
Vice President Al Gore was the Democratic candidate for president in that October of 2000 campaign.
AL GORE: We need to make sure nobody is left behind and I'll tell you this, I am not satisfied. You ain't seen nothing yet. We need to make it stronger. This election is not an award for past performance. I am not asking for your votes on the basis of the economy we have. I'm asking for your votes on the basis of the better, fairer, stronger economy that we'll create together.
JIM LEHRER: Republicans chose a familiar name for their candidate, George Bush, son of the 41st president, the twice elected governor of Texas who cast himself as a Washington outsider.
GEORGE W. BUSH: We need a new leader, a new attitude, a new way of conducting the nation's business by bringing people together. This nation does not want four more years of Clinton/Gore. This nation wants a new change for a better tomorrow.
JIM LEHRER: The candidates agreed to three October debates which I was asked to moderate, the first at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
For the record we invited Vice President Gore several times to share with us his debate experiences but each time he declined. However George W. Bush did talk with us at the White House.
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 could make a mistake, give a bad answer, do something dumb or do something inappropriate and blow the whole thing."
GEORGE W. BUSH: You know, I didn't go into the debates that way. I was pretty well prepared, I thought. You really go into the debate thinking about how do you make sure you speak as clearly as possible and it is really a process of quick reaction and clear thinking and then trying to make sure that you are able to lay it out so the average guy can understand what you are 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 four and a half trillion dollars over the next decade.
JIM LEHRER: The candidates agreed with that budget surplus projection, but disagreed with what do about it.
AL GORE: I will make sure 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: Gov. 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 building the surplus in our prosperity.
JIM LEHRER: Governor one minute.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Man's practicing fuzzy math again.
JIM LEHRER: That term, "fuzzy math", became one of George Bush's favorite lines of that debate.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Zingers. You know Ronald Reagan in 1980 came up with some zingers and that became the measure of success to 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 the zinger, 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: I want to say something. This man has been disparaging my plan with all this Washington fuzzy math.
JIM LEHRER: And a few times Gore could be heard sighing off camera.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I just told you the criteria on which I'll appoint judges. I have a record of appointing judges in the State of Texas. (Gore heard sighing)
JIM LEHRER: Remember that was the sighing and all that stuff. Explain that.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I didn't have any idea it was going on. I really didn't. I was so focused that when it was over somebody, I can't remember who it was Karen or Karl Rove or somebody said, you are not going to believe Al Gore's facial expressions. Really cost him the debate they thought.
JIM LEHRER: During those 2000 debates foreign policy seemed a distant second to domestic concerns. In fact, I did not ask my first foreign policy question until almost half way through the first one.
JIM LEHRER: Vice President Gore, if President Milosevic of Yugoslavia refuses to accept the election and leave office, what action, if any, should the United States take to get him out of there?
AL GORE: Milosevic has been indicted as a war criminal and he should be held accountable for his actions. Now, we have to take measured steps because the sentiment within Serbia -- even if they don't like Milosevic, they still have some feelings lingering from the NATO action there. So we have to be intelligent in the way we go about it.
JIM LEHRER: Is this the kind of thing, to be specific, that you as president would consider the use of U.S. military force to get him gone?
AL GORE: In this particular situation, no.
JIM LEHRER: And George Bush agreed.
JIM LEHRER: New question. How would you go about as president deciding when it was in the national interest to use U.S. force, generally?
GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, if it's in our vital national interest, and that means whether our territory is threatened or people could be harmed, whether or not the alliances are -- our defense alliances are threatened, whether or not our friends in the Middle East are threatened. Secondly, whether or not the mission was clear. And finally, whether or not there was an exit strategy. I would take the use of force very seriously.
JIM LEHRER: No one raised any concerns about Iraqi president Saddam Hussein until a week later during the second debate at Wake Forest University
GEORGE W. BUSH: The coalition against Saddam has fallen apart or it's unraveling, let's put it that way. The sanctions are being violated. We don't know whether he's developing weapons of mass destruction. He better not be or there's going to be a consequence should I be the president.
JIM LEHRER: Is there any difference?
AL GORE: I haven't heard a big difference in the last few exchanges.
GEORGE W. BUSH: That's hard to tell. I think that, you know, I would hope to be able to convince people I could handle the Iraqi situation better.
JIM LEHRER: Over the course of the three 2000 debates, Al Gore's debating style changed: animated in the first, subdued in the second and more aggressive in the third.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, it was a little surreal.
JIM LEHRER: It happened during the very first question of the third debate at Washington University in St. Louis.
JAMES HANKIN: How do you feel about HMOs and insurance companies making the critical decisions that affect people's lives instead of the medical professionals?
AL GORE: Mr. Hankins, I don't feel good about it, and I think we ought to have a patient's bill of rights...
JIM LEHRER: For a few minutes, Bush and Gore sparred over the issue
GEORGE W. BUSH: I was prowling a little bit, but so was Gore.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Well the difference is I can get it done -- that I can get something positive done on behalf of the people. That's what the question in this campaign is about.
GEORGE W. BUSH: And he approached me at first and I wasn't certain what was happening and it looked like it was going to be the body bump -- the chest bump.
GEORGE W. BUSH: It is not only your philosophy and what your position is on issues, but can you get things done. And I believe I can.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I think, as I recall, I gave him an odd expression, kind of a look. I couldn't tell if he was trying to threaten me, in which case it amused me even more or -- I wasn't sure what his motives were. All I can tell you is that, I think if you review the tape you will see a bemused expression on my face.
JIM LEHRER: And you just walked away.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I did I thought it was interesting. The other option would have been to go for the huge chest bump which in itself maybe decided the debate and he was bigger than I am in which case...
The Lieberman/Cheney Debate
JIM LEHRER: The one debate between the vice presidential candidates could not have looked, sounded or felt more different. For his running mate, George Bush had selected a long-time Washington insider, Dick Cheney. He had been Gerald Ford's White House chief of staff, served five terms in Congress and rose to a House leadership position. The first George Bush tapped him to his secretary of Defense. The second asked Cheney to head his vice presidential search committee, eventually deciding he wanted Cheney himself.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I believe you are looking at the next vice president of the United States.
JIM LEHRER: Al Gore picked for his running mate two-term Senator Joe Lieberman. The candidates met at the campus of Centre College in Denville, Kentucky just two days after that first Bush-Gore meeting. And the tone of that debate affected this one immensely.
JOE LIEBERMAN: About a week or ten days before the debate my presidential candidate, Al Gore, called me up and he said "Are you getting ready for the debate?" I said, "Yes, I am." He said, "You know what Cheney is going to do during the whole debate, don’t you?" I said "What?" He said, "He's going to attack me. So your job is to defend me."
He had been through this in '92 in his debate with Quayle, Dan Quayle -- because Quayle spent the whole night attacking Clinton.
DICK CHENEY: We had gone back in preparation for that debate and looked at Joe's debates with Lowell Weicker when he ran for the senate in Connecticut some year before and Joe was very tough. Those debates with Weicker were a knock-down, drag-out kind of an affair. So I went in prepared for that possibility.
JOE LIEBERMAN: Oh a couple of days -- two, three, four days -- before the debate we were at the debate training camp. The campaign pollsters came in, particularly after the first Gore-Bush debate which was very acrimonious, and they said the public doesn't want a nasty, harsh, attack-counter attack debate, so just get the facts out there, make the case for the ticket. So I said, ok, I won't be -- you know, I have been in debates, I know how to be aggressive in a debate. So I said, surely I am going to point out some of those votes Cheney had cast, against the Head Start program, against a free Nelson Mandela resolution -- no, the pollsters said the public is sick of that stuff.
JOE LIEBERMAN: My 85-year-old mom gave me some good advice about the debate earlier today. She said remember, be positive and know that I will love you no matter what you're opponent says about you. I am going to be positive tonight. I'm not going to indulge in negative personal attacks.
JOE LIEBERMAN: Now, what is interesting is after the campaign was over somebody interviewed Mathew Dowd, who was the Republican pollster, and he told Cheney the exact same thing that Stan Greenburg had told me -- the public is sick and tired of the acrimony. Just go in there and make the case. And Cheney apparently told him, you mean I cannot even criticize Gore's voting record? And apparently Dowd said no.
DICK CHENEY: And I'm delighted to be here tonight. I want to avoid any personal attacks. I promise not to bring up your singing.
JIM LEHRER: But Cheney pointed to another factor that might have set the tone for the evening.
DICK CHENEY: I am a great believer that the physical arrangements are important and the one condition that we had both in 2000 and in 2004 in terms of the negotiations prior to the debate was that I wanted to be seated at a table. I wanted the format like this or as we do on Meet the Press or your show on PBS.
The bit with the podium and the staging and the certain spacing between the podiums -- those kind of arrangements always gave it a sort of stilted affair and I was much more comfortable sitting down and talking. And both times we were successful. We had that as our sort of non-negotiable demand for the vice presidential debate and both times the agreed.
JIM LEHRER: Were you aware of that?
JOE LIEBERMAN: It's interesting. Nobody's told me that before. I come back to this. There was a team negotiating and they came back to me and said we are going to do this seated and I must admit my first response was gee, that's strange. I've done all my other debates, senate debates, standing. And they said no, we think this will be great for you because it will make you comfortable and it will make you feel just like it is a TV interview, perhaps on the Jim Lehrer NewsHour or something weird like that. So that was about it.
JIM LEHRER: It's been suggested that one of the reasons why your debate -- yours and Cheney's debate -- was so civilized was because you were seated and that kind of influenced the situation. Do you have any feeling about that?
JOE LIEBERMAN: That's very interesting. I have never thought much about it, but I do think both Dick Cheney and I were comfortable sitting down. But it is true when you are standing you tend to be more on the attack, so maybe it did help.
JIM LEHRER: With CNN's Bernie Shaw moderating, what transpired was the most civilized debate anyone could remember.
JOE LIEBERMAN: It was civilized, almost quaintly so by contemporary political standards. We disagreed on a lot of the political subjects we discussed and sometimes in pretty direct terms.
JIM LEHRER: On education...
JOE LIEBERMAN: I disagree with what my opponent has said. A lot of progress has been made in recent years.
JIM LEHRER: On military readiness...
DICK CHENEY: The fact the U.S. military is worse off today than it was eight years ago.
BERNIE SHAW: Senator, you're shaking your head in disagreement.
JOE LIEBERMAN: Well I am Bernie...
JIM LEHRER: On energy...
DICK CHENEY: This is an area where I think again Joe and I have fairly significant disagreements.
JOE LIEBERMAN: Bernie, we agree on the problem but we couldn't disagree more on the response to the problem.
JIM LEHRER: On Social Security...
DICK CHENEY: You won't be surprised if I disagree with Joe's description of our program.
JOE LIEBERMAN: But it was a very civil debate and I think the public gained from it. I am very proud of that debate and always will be.
JIM LEHRER: Cheney got the better of Lieberman in the most memorable exchange of the evening.
DICK CHENEY: At one point he made some reference to the fact that I had done well in the private sector while I was running Halliburton.
JOE LIEBERMAN: I think if you asked most people in America today that famous question that Ronald Reagan asked, "Are you better off today than you were eight years ago?" Most people would say yes. I'm pleased to see, Dick, from the newspapers that you're better off than you were eight years ago, too.
DICK CHENEY: I can tell you, Joe, the government had absolutely nothing to do with it.
JOE LIEBERMAN: I can see my wife and I think she's saying, "I think he should go out into the private sector."
DICK CHENEY: I'm going to try and help you do that, Joe.
DICK CHENEY: It was part of an exchange that in some ways made some points about substance but also set a nice tone for the debate and I felt we scored a few points off of that.
JOE LIEBERMAN: Maybe Dick Cheney benefited from the quipping because people did not think of Cheney as a quipster, so it probably helped him to show that side of his personality.
JIM LEHRER: Did you believe after that debate -- after the Lieberman debate -- that you won that debate?
DICK CHENEY: I did.
JOE LIEBERMAN: I'll tell you something, I think both Dick Cheney and I did well in that debate and I suppose I would say both of us gained and therefore maybe both of us were winners.