JIM LEHRER: The nationally televised presidential debates returned in 1976 and they made their comeback primarily because Watergate had turned presidential politics on its head. Nixon had resigned from office. Vice President Ford served out the term and was making his own run for the presidency.
His opponent was Jimmy Carter. The former governor of Georgia, Carter was well ahead in opinion polls when Ford challenged him to debate.
PRESIDENT FORD: I had to do something to overcome the thirty-some points I was behind.
JIM LEHRER: Ford had inherited from Richard Nixon a floundering economy. Inflation and interest rates were high. He also was feeling a backlash for granting Richard Nixon a pardon for possible Watergate-related crimes. Jimmy Carter was a newcomer to national politics. And although he welcomed Ford's invitation to debate, he accepted with some apprehension.
PRESIDENT CARTER: It was a very disturbing concept for me to be on stage with the President of the United States. I've never even met a Democratic president in my life, so there was an aura about the presidency that was quite overwhelming.
JIM LEHRER: Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theater 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 Theater 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 am Edwin Newman, moderator of the first debate of the 1976 campaign…
PRESIDENT FORD: This, I thought, would be the most difficult debate for me because in 1975 we had the worst recession in forty-some years. So I knew that Governor Carter was going to attack me on our economic policy.
GOVERNOR CARTER: He says he has 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.
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?
PRESIDENT CARTER: Yes, it was. This was really the first time I had had a direct confrontation with President Ford, and as a matter of fact, although we were not hot competitors, I had an admiration for him because I knew the difficult circumstances under which he had become president.
PRESIDENT FORD: Now in the case of Mr. Nixon, the reason 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 have 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.
PRESIDENT CARTER: So there wasn't any personal animosity or petiferation there. There was one of respect for a very worthy opponent, but still a highly competitive atmosphere.
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.
GOVERNOR CARTER: Well, 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 - [audio failure]
JIM LEHRER: It took the candidates a few moments to realize they weren't being heard by the television audience. On ABC, there wasn't much for anchorman Harry Reasoner could say either.
HARRY REASONER, ABC Anchor: At the moment all we can do is watch this interesting development with the President of the United States who also happens to be a candidate for the presidency of the United States and a former governor of Georgia who is the other major candidate for the presidency doing what we are doing which is waiting for something to happen.
JIM LEHRER: Everyone in America who was watching, you know, was very - couldn't figure out - this was unreal. What was it like standing there?
PRESIDENT 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.
PRESIDENT FORD: I suspect both of us would have liked to sit down and relax while the technicians were fixing the system, but I 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 replace it.
PRESIDENT CARTER: So I don't know who was more ill at ease, me or President Ford.
JIM LEHRER: It looked like a tie to me.
PRESIDENT CARTER: It was a tie. Neither one of us was at ease, there's no doubt about that. 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.
JIM LEHRER: However each candidate experienced his own individual moment of distress during the course of the debates.
Jimmy Carter's occurred during the third debate in Williamsburg, Virginia. Playboy Magazine had just published an interview with the Democratic nominee. Carter knew there would be questions about some of the comments he had made.
PRESIDENT CARTER: As you know, that Playboy interview could have cost me the election.
JIM LEHRER: During the Playboy interview, Carter said: "I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times. This is something that God recognizes I will do - and I have done it - and God forgives me for it."
PRESIDENT CARTER: It was a devastating blow to our campaign when this Playboy interview was published. The news reporters and the general public just forgot about all the issues.
GOVERNOR CARTER: The Playboy thing has been of great-- of very great concern to me. I don't know how to deal with it exactly. I agreed to give the interview to Playboy. Other people have done it who are notable - Governor Jerry Brown, Walter Cronkite, Albert Schweitzer, Mr. Ford's own Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. Simon, William Buckley, many other people. But they weren't running for president. And in retrospect, from hindsight, I would not have given that interview if I had to do it over again. If I should ever decide in the future to discuss my deep Christian beliefs and condemnation and sinfulness, I'll use another forum besides Playboy.
PRESIDENT CARTER: And I thought the best way to handle it was to say, well, I'm sorry that the interview came out, but I couldn't deny that the answers in Playboy were my own answers.
JIM LEHRER: For President Ford, the moment he most would like to forget had more serious implications. It came during the second debate in San Francisco. The focus was on 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 the permanent Communist regime in East Germany. We've virtually signed, in Helsinki, an agreement that the Russians have dominance in Eastern Europe…
PRESIDENT 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 the - His Holiness, the Pope would agree by signing that agreement that the thirty-five nations have turned over to the Warsaw Pact nations the domination of the - Eastern Europe. It just isn't true… There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.
MR. FRANKEL: I'm sorry, I - 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?
PRESIDENT FORD: I don't believe, - Mr. Frankel that - the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Rumanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union.
JIM LEHRER: Why did you say that?
PRESIDENT FORD: There is 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?
PRESIDENT 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 and judgment.
JIM LEHRER: Did you have any idea that you had said something wrong?
PRESIDENT 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.
PRESIDENT 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?
PRESIDENT 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.
PRESIDENT 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.
JIM LEHRER: If there was any question that a debate between vice presidential candidates could impact an election, Senators Walter Mondale on Minnesota and Bob Dole of Kansas provided some answers in 1976.
SENATOR DOLE: I assume the audience will be smaller, but I said before I think we can put them asleep quicker than the presidents - presidential candidates did.
JIM LEHRER: On October 15, 1976, at the Alley Theater in Houston, Texas, Walter Mondale and Bob Dole met in the first debate ever between vice presidential candidates. Dole, known for his quick wit, demonstrated it right from the start of the debate.
SENATOR DOLE: I've known my counterpart for some time and we've been friends and we'll be friends when this debate is over and we'll be friends when the election is over and he'll still be in the Senate…
Well, I said as I've traveled around the country, mostly in jest, as to why you are running for vice president. I said, "Well, it's indoor work and there's no heavy lifting."
JIM LEHRER: Dole joked even in response to questions about Watergate.
SENATOR DOLE: And I was chairman of the Republican Party during the Watergate years and I'm very proud to have been chairman. I've always said that the night Watergate happened was my night off, so you can't hook me on that.
JIM LEHRER: But as the debate wore on, Dole sharpened the edges of his remarks.
SENATOR DOLE: I couldn't quite understand what Governor Carter meant in Playboy magazine. I couldn't understand frankly why he was in Playboy magazine. But he was and we'll give him the bunny vote.
VICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: I did not have a plan to open up an attack. But I did anticipate that he would. Unbelievably, we had anticipated that he would accuse the Democrats of starting World War II, and he did.
JIM LEHRER: That remark came in response to a question to Dole about his support for President Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon.
WALTER MEARS, Panelist: Senator Dole… two years ago when you ran for the Senate you said the pardon was prematurely granted and that it was a mistake. Do you approve of it now and if the issue was fair game in your 1974 campaign, why is it not an appropriate topic now?
SENATOR DOLE: It is an appropriate topic, I guess, but it's not a very good issue any more than the war in Vietnam would be or World War II or World War I or the war in Korea, all Democratic wars, all in this century. I figured up the other day. If we added up the killed and wounded in the Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit. If we want to go back and rake that over and over again, we can do that.
VICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: Unbelievable. I had to try to keep a straight face. I think they blew the election right there.
JIM LEHRER: How in the world were you able to anticipate that.
VICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: One of my advisers -- I'll never forget this. We were just closing down the last discussion, and he said, "I'll bet that Senator Dole will accuse the Democrats of causing World War II," and I said, "You are crazy." He said, "No, I've got a feeling he'll do it." So I said, "Well, how shall we handle it?" And he did it.
SENATOR MONDALE: I think Senator Dole has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man tonight by implying and stating that World War II and the Korean war were Democratic wars. Does he really mean to suggest to the American people that there was a partisan difference over involvement in the war to fight Nazi Germany? I don't think any reasonable American would accept that.
JIM LEHRER: How did that happen? How did you happen to say Democrat wars? Is this something you went in there-
SENATOR DOLE: It was boilerplate. I mean, in those days, you know, I had a stack of briefing notes about two feet high…, which I received from the Ford people, the national committee, and I guess I should have exercised my own judgment… But, in any event, I probably wish I hadn't said it.
JIM LEHRER: You do wish you hadn't said it?
SENATOR BOB DOLE: Yeah. One of my heroes was FDR and I'm a World War II veteran, so I didn't want my view to run around and say well, the Democrats started all the wars in the world.
JIM LEHRER: Were you expecting the negative reaction, let's put it that way, when you finished?
SENATOR BOB DOLE: Not really. I mean, my role in the campaign was to got out and try to go to the edge, you know, to keep pushing the Mondale-Carter group, and I guess some referred to me as a hatchet man, but maybe that was correct. But Ford had sort of the Rose Garden strategy and I was out in the briar patch. I used to tell him, you know, please call me home.
JIM LEHRER: The general consensus after that was that he came over as a mean… that's where he got his real reputation for being mean, nasty, and all of that. Was that what you went in to accomplish, to show him up as a mean and nasty man.
VICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: No, I don't think he's a mean and nasty man. I just think he performed poorly that night.
JIM LEHRER: When it was over, the second that debate was over that night in Houston, did you think you had taken him? Did you think you have won?
VICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: Yes, I walked off there convinced we may have won the election that night, not because of me, but I think it was very poor strategy on their part, that it opened up an issue.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?
SENATOR DOLE: I went back and reviewed-Elizabeth was concerned about it… so we reviewed that tape and I thought I was pretty relaxed and pretty calm. I didn't conclude, now maybe I'm being defensive that I've gone too far because it was my assignment was to go pretty far.
JIM LEHRER: So, after you reviewed the tape, did you still feel that hey, you didn't go over any line.
SENATOR DOLE: No, I didn't think so. Now, of course, that's me looking at it. That's fairly subjective. But you try to be… this was after the election, too, of course, and we lost in a very close election, but I didn't think so. But I must say it made me more cautious in future debates.