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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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The Carter/Reagan Debates
September 24, 2000

JIM LEHRER: Jimmy Carter believes he clearly benefited from his debates with President Ford.

ROSALYNN CARTER: As Jimmy said earlier, there is no way we would be here tonight with Jimmy President of the United States without your help.

JIM LEHRER: But in 1980, Carter was the incumbent and there were two candidates who wanted to debate him; the Republican, former California Governor Ronald Reagan and John Anderson, a moderate Republican Congressman from Illinois running as an independent.

ANDERSON SUPPORTER: Ladies and gentlemen I'd like to introduce you to the next President of the United States, John B. Anderson.

JIM LEHRER: Anderson's double-digit popularity in the polls was fueled by his aggressive approach to deal with inflation and the ongoing energy crisis.

U.S. Rep. John AndersonJOHN ANDERSON: I think most of us and I hope all of you want to be able to vote proudly and with confidence for the man of your choice. Give me your help, give me your votes on the 4th of November.

JIM LEHRER: But while President Carter was anxious to debate Ronald Reagan, he refused to debate John Anderson.

PRESIDENT CARTER: President Reagan only wanted one debate, and he wanted it as late as possible. And whenever we pursued the subject of a debate, he said well, we can't have a two-person debate since John Anderson is running as an independent. We've got to have him on as an equal candidate. And obviously, Reagan knew that every time the independent candidate got a vote, it was a vote taken away from me.

JIM LEHRER: And so, on September 21, 1980 on the debate stage in Baltimore, there were only two candidates.

BILL MOYERS, Moderator: Former Governor Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party candidate and Congressman John Anderson, who is running as an independent, accepted the League of Women Voters' invitation to be here. President Carter declined.

JIM LEHRER: What led up to the decision to debate Anderson by himself?

President ReaganPRESIDENT REAGAN: They wanted a three-way debate, and Carter refused to do that one, and I didn't see any reason why Anderson should be excommunicated. So I said no, I would go forward with it. It became just a two-way debate.

JIM LEHRER: At the time, how did you read first of all the motives of Reagan for agreeing to debate you?

JOHN ANDERSON: Well, I think that he felt that perhaps it made him look as the person to be admired for being forthright and open and willing to take on all comers. And in contrast to that, that Carter was being very defensive, felt beleaguered and was unwilling to expose himself to a three person debate.

JIM LEHRER: Why did he not want you in the debate?

JOHN ANDERSON: Well, he, I think, feared that it would legitimize my campaign to an even greater extent.

JIM LEHRER: President Carter refused to participate in the Baltimore debates but it did not shield him from criticism.

John AndersonJOHN ANDERSON: It seems to me that the people who are watching us tonight, the 221 million Americans, are truly concerned about the poor rate of performance of the American economy over the last four years. Now, Governor Reagan is not responsible for what has happened over the last four years, nor am I. The man who should be here tonight to respond to those charges chose not to attend.

GOVERNOR REAGAN: There might be some feeling of unfairness about this because he was not here to respond. But I believe it would have been much more unfair to have had John Anderson denied the right to participate in this debate.

JIM LEHRER: At the center of John Anderson's campaign was a proposed 50 cent-a-gallon tax increase on gasoline as well as some significant lifestyle changes.

JOHN ANDERSON: We simply cannot have people sitting one behind the wheel of a car and these long traffic jams going in and out of our great cities. We are going to have to resort to van pooling, to car pooling. We're going to have to develop better community transportation systems so that with buses and light rail we can replace the private automobile in those places where it clearly is not energy efficient.

Jim LehrerJIM LEHRER: Was it in fact an advantage to be able to debate even just Reagan by himself?

JOHN ANDERSON: Oh, yes. We didn't get the bounce that I had hoped for. But it was an advantage to me because the campaign had lagged, very frankly, once the national conventions were held. This was one great opportunity to recharge the campaign.

JIM LEHRER: That first debate also gave Ronald Reagan an opportunity to familiarize the audience with his conservative philosophy of less government.

GOVERNOR REAGAN: I believe that inflation today is caused by government simply spending more than government takes in at the same time that government has imposed upon business and industry from the shopkeeper on the corner to the biggest industrial plant in America countless harassing regulations and punitive taxes that have reduced productivity at the same time they have increased the cost of production.

JIM LEHRER: With the election still more than a month away, President Carter's campaign managers continued to press for his own face-to-face meeting with Ronald Reagan.

President Jimmy CarterPRESIDENT CARTER: I wanted a lot of debates. I wanted three or four debates at least.

JIM LEHRER: Why? Why did you want so many debates?

PRESIDENT CARTER: Because I thought that I was much more a master of the subject matter. I knew that he was a master of the medium, perfectly at ease before the television cameras. I knew that I was not a master of the medium, and I thought that if we'd get past the one hour and go to maybe four, five, six hours on television that substance rather than style would be more prevalent.

JIM LEHRER: But President Carter had to be satisfied to debate Ronald Reagan only once. It happened on the stage at Cleveland's Public Hall on October 29, 1980, one week before election day.

JIM LEHRER: Did you have a strategy going into the debate that you wanted to accomplish the following, if nothing else, or establish a certain thing?

President Ronald ReaganPRESIDENT REAGAN: Well, I believe that I had a program, that I wasn't just going in there and asking for the job and then saying now what do we do. I had some things that I thought very definitely should be done.

GOVERNOR REAGAN: Yes, you can lick inflation by increasing productivity and by decreasing the cost of government to the place that we have balanced budgets and are no longer running -- grinding out printing-press money, flooding the market with it because the government is spending more than it takes in. And my economic plan calls for that.

JIM LEHRER: As for John Anderson, he wasn't on the debate stage in Cleveland. He wasn't invited.

JIM LEHRER: Was that a terrible blow to your campaign?

JOHN ANDERSON: It was absolutely devastating. The only thing that I could think of was that on the television sets as people across the country watched that debate, it was a two man race. If I had been important, if I had really been other than simply tangential to the whole process, I would have been there. They didn't know about all of the back and forth and the efforts that we had made to get into the debate. They couldn't possibly know the disappointment that that was. No, it was absolutely crushing.

Gov. Ronald ReaganGOVERNOR REAGAN: I'm sorry that we couldn't persuade the bringing in of the third candidate so that he could've been seen also in these debates. But still it's good that at least once all three of us were heard by the people of this country.

JIM LEHRER: Two memorable happenings in that debate. You said:

PRESIDENT CARTER: I had a discussion with my daughter Amy the other day before I came here to ask me what the most important issue was. She said she thought nuclear weaponry.

JIM LEHRER: When he said that, as you were standing there on the stage, were you aware of the fact that he had made a terrible mistake?

PRESIDENT REAGAN: It seemed to me he had, because the whole thing sounded, and I think you could almost feel an attitude from the audience on it, that the President was going to make a major policy based on what a child told him? And I'm sure he didn't have that in mind, but that's the way it came out. And I was prepared to say to the people, I promise them I wouldn't ask my kids what I should do.

Lehrer and CarterJIM LEHRER: You were ridiculed for it and you were criticized for it. Did you expect that? Were you surprised?

PRESIDENT CARTER: I was surprised. But President Reagan and his political advisers turned it around to, I think, his advantage by saying that I was getting my advice on nuclear power issues or arms control issues from my teenage daughter. And it was used by the Republicans to ridicule me, and I think they probably gained some political points from it.

JIM LEHRER: When you look back on that, do you look upon that as a mistake you made?

PRESIDENT CARTER: Yes, I think so. It was an honest statement that made a point that still is remembered. I got a flood of letters afterwards, you know, congratulations, you did the right thing. Your daughter Amy had more judgment about nuclear weaponry than Reagan did and so forth. But I think in the contest there just a few days before the election, he came out ahead on that deal.

JIM LEHRER: In fact, it appeared Ronald Reagan came out ahead several times during the debate. He delivered some memorable lines that viewers repeated long after the debate ended.

Jim LehrerJIM LEHRER: One of them is your line, "There you go again." It came up in a discussion about Medicare, and whether you had favored it or not, early on.

PRESIDENT REAGAN: Oh yes.

PRESIDENT CARTER: Governor Reagan, as a matter of fact, began his political career campaigning around this nation against Medicare.

PRESIDENT REAGAN: I wasn't against the Medicare bill that finally came along, but some of the people that were proposing this, it was obvious that they, in reality, wanted socialized medicine.

PRESIDENT CARTER: Governor Reagan again, typically, is against such a proposal.

MODERATOR: Governor?

Gov. Ronald ReaganGOVERNOR REAGAN: There you go again. When I opposed Medicare, there was another piece of legislation meeting the same problem before the Congress. I happened to favor the other piece of legislation and thought that it would be better for the senior citizens and provide better care than the one that was finally passed.

PRESIDENT CARTER: Well, I'm sure that was a well rehearsed line that President Reagan had prepared carefully, the style of delivery when he would bring it in, and it was an inevitable statement that he would make.

JIM LEHRER: Was "there you go again" a line that just came to you spontaneously, or was it something that you had worked on?

PRESIDENT REAGAN: No, it just seemed to be the thing to say in what he was saying up there, because it was to me it felt kind of repetitious, something we had heard before.

President Jimmy CarterPRESIDENT CARTER: That was a memorable line. I think it showed that he was relaxed and had a sense of humor, and it was kind of a denigrating thing to me. And I think that he benefited from saying that, politically speaking.

JIM LEHRER: How important do you think that debate was to your having defeated President Carter?

PRESIDENT REAGAN: I think, well, I think there were some things. As a matter of fact, I think a very telling line was at the very end of the debate when I told the people:

GOVERNOR REAGAN: It might be well if you ask yourself are you better off than you were four years ago? Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago? Is America as respected throughout the world as it was? Do you feel that our security is as safe? That we're as strong as we were four years ago? And if you answer all of those questions yes, why then I think your choice is very obvious as to who you'll vote for. If you don't agree, if you don't think that this course that we've been on for the last four years is what you would like to see us follow for the next four, then I could suggest another choice that you have.

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Candidate Interviews

John Anderson (I),
Former U.S. Rep. (IL)

George H.W. Bush (R),
President

Jimmy Carter (D),
President

Bill Clinton (D),
President

Bob Dole (R),
United States Senator (KS)

Micheal Dukakis (D),
Governor (MA)

Geraldine Ferraro (D),
Former U.S. Rep. (NY)

Gerald Ford (R),
President

Jack Kemp (R),
Former U.S. Rep. (NY)

Walter Mondale (D),
Vice President

Dan Quayle (R),
Vice President

Ronald Reagan (R),
President

Admiral James Stockdale (I),
1992 Vice Presidential Candidate

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