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starsJim Lehrer hosts Debating Our Destiny
A look at the pivotal moments from the last 48 years of presidential debates through the eyes of those who were there.
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starBehind the Debates

Why Debate?

Born out of political necessity, public debates for the highest office in the land began as largely ad hoc events but have become critical national tests of a candidate's ability to convey their message and avoid potential verbal pitfalls.

Candidates trailing in the polls or confident in their abilities have always proposed debates in an effort to gain an edge over a Debatescompetitor. But as the mass media of radio and television emerged, the debates took on new importance.

One of the earliest presidential debates involved the 1948 Oregon Republican primary. New York Governor Thomas Dewey and former Minnesota Governor Harold Stassen debated outlawing the Communist Party in the U.S. Somewhere between 40 to 80 million listened to the first and only presidential debate to focus on one issue.

Eight years later the first televised presidential primary debate took place in Florida. Adlai Stevenson, former Illinois governor, and Estes Kefauver, former Tennessee senator, debated a range of topics as they competed for the Democratic nod.

But it was the presidential debate of 1960 is when the rules changed. By the time the Kennedy-Nixon debates were over, the power and potential importance of political debates seemed clear, as did the potential dangers of performing poorly. But the growing influence of the televised spectacle sent a chill through the presidential campaigns and it would be 16 years before they emerged again.

When, in 1976, the debates did reappear, the organization leading the charge was the League of Women Voters. Founded in 1920, the league sponsored regular debates between candidates for a variety of offices. The organization had been founded as an outgrowth of the women's suffrage movement, to help 20 million new voters carry out their civic responsibilities. In 1928, half hour debates were broadcast by NBC radio once a week for 10 months preceding the election.

As the League of Women Voters accepted the responsibility of organizing and running the debates, the pressure mounted.

"The moment we announced our criteria for candidate participation, we were fair game for alternative suggestions by political pundits and by the candidates as well," League of Women Voters chair Ruth Hinerfeld wrote in 1980. "We were advised to limit the debates to the major party candidates. We were urged to set a threshold higher -- or lower -- than the 15-percent mark we established for independent or minor party participation."

That year, intense bickering and political maneuvering between the major candidates resulted in one debate between Gov. Ronald Reagan and independent candidate Rep. John Anderson and another between Reagan and President Jimmy Carter.

"We have been disapWalter Mondalepointed by the major party candidates' reluctance to face the American people," Hinerfeld wrote.

Amidst the controversy over controlling the guidelines, several panels conducted studies about the debates and concluded that an independent debate sponsor should be established. The Commission on Presidential Debates was created in 1987 and in 1988, the League bowed out of its decade of hosting presidential debates.

The debate commission, a bipartisan non-profit organization, accepts no money from the government or political parties, but raises funds from independent sources.

In order to participate in a commission debate, candidates must establish their constitutional eligibility for office, sufficient ballot access to be able to secure an Electoral College majority, and the support of at least 15 percent of the national electorate.

Preparing for the Debate

To do well in a televised presidential debate, the candidate has historically needed an ability to clearly express their ideas and goals George H.W. Bush, Ross Perot and Bill Clintonwhile appearing poised and confident in front of an auditorium full or people and tens of millions of viewers at home.

With the exception of long-shot independent candidate John Anderson, who said he only reviewed policy before his debate, candidates have undergone intense programs of reviewing policies and honing their skills ahead of their debate.

One of the first step of preparing for a debate is anticipating the questions. In Jimmy Carter1976, Jimmy Carter was sure he would be asked about his recent interview with Playboy.

"I was prepared for the question," he said in an interview with Jim Lehrer. "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." By being ready for the question, President Carter was able to use the debate to put a very troubling issue behind him.

George H.W. Bush's team tried to predict the types of questions each journalist would ask. "Now this guy, you got Bernie Shaw on the panel and here's what he's probably gonna ask you. You got Leslie Stahl over here and she's known to go for this and that," President Bush told Jim Lehrer.

His prepping team then crafted the right answer that would satisfy the specific questioner.

After deciding which issues to focus on, staff members at the campaigns prepared briefing materials that were thoroughly reviewed by the candidates. This gave them the facts to draw from during the debates and helped them formulate succinct statements expressing their views.

President Ford said the briefings were extremely useful. "My staff put together two or three volumes of possible questions and suggested Gerald Fordresponses. I spent several days, if not more, going through the several volumes that they had arranged, and then we would have sort of preparatory debates where members of my staff would ask me questions and I would respond. That kind of preparation was very helpful, very valuable in anticipating what the various panel members would ask during the debates," he told Jim Lehrer.

But candidates did run into trouble by preparing too much. Many people thought President Ronald Reagan was tired and "out of it" during his first debate with Walter Mondale in 1984. But according to Reagan, he was over-trained.

"I just had more facts and figures poured at me for weeks than anyone could possibly sort out and use, and I call it overtraining. When I got there, I realized that I wracking my brain so much for facts and figures on whatever subject we were talking about, that I knew I didn't do well." Reagan was much more relaxed and persuasive in the second debate and he credits his performance to less training.

Sometimes the preparation did not have the desired effect. Dole's statement in the 1976 vice presidential debate that characterized all twentieth century wars as Democratic wars was derived from material in his briefing books.

"I had a stack of briefing notes about two feet high, which I think is the greatest about the debates is preparation because you have a chance to review everything and it really keeps you going in on the campaign. But, you know, that was in the briefing book, which I received from the Ford people, the national committee, and I guess I should have exercised my own judgment," Dole said.

His comments, widely seen as highly negative and inflammatory, helped tar Dole as an "attack dog" and made his 1996 run for the White House that much harder.

Practice debates are also a key part of debate planning for most candidates. These sessions were often taped and then critiqued by the candidates and their staffs. This allowed candidates to become more comfortable with the debate format so that they could better control how they were perceived by voters.

In 1984, Mondale and his debate adviser, Mike Soveran, the president of Columbia University practiced for days. Soveran played Reagan and they had a fake news panel. They set up lecterns in Mondale's home.

"We had a video tape as we'd look at things, and we mapped out a strategy for what approach I wanted to take, what questions are liable to come up and so on," he told Jim Lehrer. They also watched tapes of past debates.

To prepare to debate Senator Dole in 1996, President Clinton prepped with former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. "Mitchell was ruthless. I mean, the first time - the first debate we had in the preparation session he just killed me. You know, I walked in there; he had been preparing for weeks. He'd really done his homework, and I just kind of read the book in a cursory way, and he literally beat my brains out. I mean, it was - it was ruthless. They should have called it TKO before it was over and - so, we practiced and practiced and practiced, and I was - you know - ready to do whatever," he told Jim Lehrer.

Vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro found the whole process tiring.

"If you ask me a question, don't tell me what the question is in advance, cause I'd rather not know. I'd rather give you a spontaneous direct response to it. I also lose interest if I have to go over and over and over again because it looks to me if you're practicing it becomes artificial. So I just find the whole process very tedious," she said.

In the end, most of the candidates studied and practiced. Their carefully honed and memorized answers flow out of the candidates, but in the end it is often the unexpected moments of the debate that have lived on in the memories of the participants and the voters.

Produced by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions in association with the Commission on Presidential Debates and WETA

Debating Our Destiny is brought to you, in part, by: Chevron

Copyright 2008 MacNeil/Lehrer Productions
MacNeil/Lehrer Productions