CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And joining us for that are four NewsHour regulars, Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson, and William Kristol, editor and publisher of The Weekly Standard.
And Doris, you're up there all by yourself. Let's hear what you have to say about [the] different format. What about the outcome?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, presidential historian: Well, it seemed to me that after all the grandiose talk this week that there might be a knockout punch on character from Dole, it really seemed more like a series of ineffective jabs on the character issue. He just mentioned them. They kept popping up, whether it was AWOL on drugs, or whether it was the FBI files, and they always seemed to be out of sync with the questions, so it seemed like he just had a list of things he had to get out. And I don't think people can respond to that. It had to be really taken on altogether, or else not brought up in that same sense.
And even if he had taken on--I think after this whole week of telling everybody he was going to do it, Clinton surely would have been prepared. The only way you do it is to surprise somebody. You don't tell them in the fifth round I'm going to do a knockout punch. And if Clinton had really felt that those character jabs had gotten to him, I think he would have responded. I think he was better off not doing that.
I also think that Dole lost a little bit on the age question. That could have been a great question for him, as it was for Reagan many years ago. He did have a good beginning, but then he went off into policy. He should have said, what do you need in a President? You need conviction; you need character; you need ideas. Age doesn't matter in those things. This is a lingering doubt on the part of the people, and I guess lastly, I'd just say I think the refrain that he kept using that somehow he has no ideas, so he's trashing ours, and his comment about we have the worst economy in a century may not have been a gaffe like Eastern Europe with Ford but was a pretty silly refrain that lacked gravity. So I think in all those things he really did miss out on what he might have done.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: William Kristol.
WILLIAM KRISTOL, The Weekly Standard: Well, I thought Dole did pretty well, actually, and especially in a format that is supposed to be so strong for Bill Clinton, but I do think he did not do enough. He did not land a knockout punch that Republicans certainly were hoping for, though I don't know how many really expected it, and I thought at the end there was this rather touching moment when Dole, in his witty way, said he wanted to thank all the people who may still be watching. With that, he acknowledged that basically it had not been a transformative debate, it had not been, you know, a debate that would grab the attention of the American people, and by acknowledging that an awful lot of people probably turned it off and went to the baseball game, I think he may have been acknowledging that the election was over.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Michael.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Can't disagree. You know, one thing I've been very worried about is this format. This is only the second time in history we've had this kind of "town hall meeting" debate in a presidential campaign. And I thought Richmond in 1992 was not terribly promising for that. I think a lot of it got very trivial. Also, there seemed to be a sense that it inevitably would favor the person who was the better television performer, and also if one of the candidates made serious, high-minded criticism of the opponent, that it would look mean, and so, therefore, that would be barred to one of the people in the debate.
I think none of those things really came to pass tonight so in a way I think was a vindication of the format. I think Bob Dole did turn in a better performance than during the first debate, particularly during the first half of what we saw this evening, so I think that helps.
But I think looking at this over the whole course of these debates in this campaign, I think one thing you really have to say, and that is that if Bob Dole had been running in the American politics of 70, 80 years ago, I think he'd be running much better now because without television, without this kind of debate. I think the fact that he is somewhat halting in his ability to communicate would not have harmed him. I think in this age where television is so important with debates that really center the public attention, I think he's been operating at a handicap really all this fall.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Haynes, do you have anything different to add to that?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: What's fascinating, I've just been listening to all of our colleagues. This is the third time we've done this, and the same phrase, the sports metaphor "no knockout" at the end, nothing really changed, yes, he might have done a little better, and so forth, I think that's really what happened.
I thought there had been a poignancy about this. Certainly Sen. Dole started out very strong, much more forcefully. He raised the questions he wanted to raise. We've been preparing for them, as Doris said, all week, and then it didn't go anywhere. He got sort of snappish and peevish, and he kept repeating himself and coming back in, and this format is made for Bill Clinton. He addresses every question. He walks right to the person. He doesn't digress. He doesn't let himself get off, and he responds specifically, showing he knows what he's talking about. He seems impressive, all the things that we've watched Mr. Clinton hone his skills before in the television age were on the format, and there were some interesting moments in this occasion.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Yeah. I thought that Mark said something interesting earlier. He said that there were some lasting sound bites instead of memorable lines. Did you hear any memorable lines in this debate, Michael Beschloss?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think occasionally, for instance, when there was a reference to the lack of a tax cut that was paid for and Dole made that little remark, yes, the last time you ran in 1992--but in a way, it's the problem with this whole format, which is that it really turns on these quick and clever remarks. My question is: Does that really have a lot to do with being a great President? I'm not so sure.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Politically there were two moments. Sorry, Bill. Very quickly, when the President turned on the economic question and said, if you believe that Ronald Reagan, the famous formulation of Ronald Reagan, if you believe that California is better in 1996--or in 1992 than it was in 1996, you ought to vote for Bob Dole--there was a long pause--and everybody in California remembers what a disaster they had four years before and the depression there. It was a moment that I think had coinage politically.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: William Kristol.
WILLIAM KRISTOL, The Weekly Standard: There were a couple of cut lines, especially by Dole, who is awfully witty, but I mean the bottom line is he did not take the kind of risk you have to take to come back from ten or fifteen points down. Bob Shrum says, praises him for not appealing to anti-gay prejudice, another way of saying that is that he didn't make a principled defense, the traditional family against alternative lifestyles. He didn't turn to Clinton and say to him directly what he said in the speech yesterday about him, you, Mr. President, have not behaved ethically in office, you have not upheld standards. He didn't do the two or three things, the bold things, either taking on Clinton directly or taking on someone in the audience directly that would have been a dramatic moment. It would have been a risky moment, but it might have been a dramatic moment that could have changed the character of the campaign.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Doris, has that ever happened historically that, that--at--following the prescription that William Kristol just outlined, a candidate coming from behind has actually changed the outcome?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Certainly not in the last debate like this. I mean, I think you can change the tone of the campaign early in the debate, as John Kennedy did with Richard Nixon, showing that his youth and inexperience were not a problem because he could stand next to Richard Nixon, and that helped a great deal. But coming at this late date, I think if President, if President Clinton had been attacked on character by Dole in a really mean way, it was one debate too late. He should have done it last time, and this format doesn't lend itself to that because the audience want issues. That's what happened in ‘92. Bush wanted to attack Clinton's character then, but the audience didn't ask the questions that allowed him to do it.
But one thing that should be said for Sen. Dole is that I think he did a better job than President Bush did in this format. Remember how much stiffer Bush was. Clinton clearly won in the empathy format like last time. This time, Dole came out from behind the podium, he went halfway to the audience, even though Clinton sort of wrapped his arms almost around the people, so he was further down, but still, he seemed more relaxed, I think, than Bush did four years ago.
BILL KRISTOL: And Dole never looked at his watch.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Right.
BILL KRISTOL: He broke the tradition of Republican candidates looking at their watch.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I'm not looking at my watch but I'm hearing the director.
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