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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 Reagan/Mondale Debates
September 24, 2000

JIM LEHRER: Ronald Reagan's comfort before the cameras during his movie career proved just as important to his success as president.

PRESIDENT REAGAN: My fellow Americans. It's been nearly three years since I first spoke to you from this room. Together we have faced many difficult problems and I've come to feel a special bond of kinship with each one of you.

JIM LEHRER: By 1984, President Reagan's popularity was strong among both Republicans and the new "Reagan Democrats." For Walter Mondale, the challenge proved insurmountable. The former vice president believed his only chance of defeating Mr. Reagan would be to debate him first

Mondale and ReaganAnd Mondale was grateful that the president agreed to debate him in Louisville, Kentucky, October 17, 1984.

VICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: I want to thank President Reagan for agreeing to debate. He didn't have to and he did, and we all appreciate it.

JIM LEHRER: Was there a strategy going on that you wanted ... something you wanted to accomplish, bottom line?

VICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: I wanted to show presidential stature. I wanted to show mastery of the issues. I wanted to show that progressive dimension again. I wanted to show that I was more alert than the president, without being negative.

VICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: One of the key tests of leadership is whether one sees clearly the nature of the problems confronted by our nation. And perhaps the dominant domestic issue of our times is what do we about these enormous deficits. I respect the President. I respect the presidency. I think he knows that. But the fact of it is every estimate by this administration about the size of the deficit has been off by billions and billions of dollars.

JIM LEHRER: The consensus afterward was that you took him. You won that debate. Did you agree with that when it was over?

VICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: Yes. I knew we had won.

JIM LEHRER: Why? Why? What went right for you?

VICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: There were two or three things in there. One, I had anticipated that he would say, "there you go again," and I was ready for that because I opened up the Social Security issue.

Vice President MondaleVICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: Mr. Reagan, after the election is going to have to propose a tax increase…

PRESIDENT REAGAN: You know, I wasn't going to say this at all, but I can't help it: There you go again. I don't have a plan to tax or increase taxes. I am not going to increase taxes. I can understand why you are, Mr. Mondale, because as a Senator you voted 16 times to increase taxes…

VICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: Mr. President, you said, "There you again." All right. Remember the last time you said that? You said it when President Carter said you were going to cut Medicare, and you said, "Oh no, there you go again Mr. President." And what did you do right after the election? You went out and tried to cut $20 billion out of Medicare. And so, when you say, "There you go again," people remember this.

VICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: But the main thing, I think, that hurt him was he seemed to be; ill-focused, seemed to lose his way, stumble, roam around in irrelevancies, and it was a pretty -- it was an impressively unimpressive personal performance.

President Ronald ReaganPRESIDENT REAGAN: We're spending a third more on all of the programs of human service. We have more people receiving food stamps than were ever receiving them before.

JIM LEHRER: The consensus afterward, Mr. President, was that you were tired, didn't do that well, etc. Do you agree with that? Were you tired?

PRESIDENT REAGAN: No, it wasn't tired. I was overtrained. We then, being there in office and all, everyone available, I want to tell you, I just had more facts and figures poured at me for weeks before than anyone could possibly sort out and use, and I call it overtraining. When I got there, I realized that I was wracking my brain so much for facts and figures on whatever subject we were talking about.

PRESIDENT REAGAN: 7.7 million elderly citizens who were living in the lowest 20 percent of earnings, 7.7 million have moved up into another bracket since our administration took over, leaving only 5 million of the elderly in that bracket when there had been more than 13 million.

President ReaganPRESIDENT REAGAN: I knew I didn't do well.

VICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: I think the public wanted to vote for Reagan, which they later demonstrated. That the only thing that was going to give me a chance was a feeling that he was losing the full mastery of the presidency.

PRESIDENT REAGAN: The second debate, I wasn't overtrained.

JIM LEHRER: And you feel you really pulled that one out No question about that one?


JIM LEHRER: The second debate was two weeks later in Kansas City. The questions focused on foreign policy and defense, areas where President Reagan believed he held the advantage.

PRESIDENT REAGAN: And I told Mr. Gromyko we don't like their system. They don't like ours. And we're not gonna change their system and they sure better not try to change ours. But, between us, we can either destroy the world or we can save it. And I suggested that certainly it was to their common interest, along with ours, to avoid a conflict and to attempt to save the world and remove the nuclear weapons. And I think that perhaps we established a little better understanding.

JIM LEHRER: President Reagan appeared more in command during the second debate. If there was any doubt, Mr. Reagan put an end to it when he responded to a question about his performance during the first debate.

PRESIDENT REAGAN: I couldn't believe that question when it came at me from that press board that was there.

HENRY TREWHITT, Panelist: You already are the oldest president in history and some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go days on end very little sleep during the Cuba missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?

President ReaganPRESIDENT REAGAN: Not at all. And, Mr. Trewhitt, I want you to know also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.

JIM LEHRER: Was that one you were laying for?

PRESIDENT REAGAN: I never thought about it until I got that was really off the top of my head.

JIM LEHRER: Was that when you knew you were in trouble?

VICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: He got the audience with that, yeah. I could tell that one hurt.

JIM LEHRER: Did that strike you as obviously a pre-programmed line?

VICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: Well, I'll tell you, if TV can tell the truth, as you say it can, you'll see that I was smiling. But I think if you come in close, you'll see some tears coming down because I knew he had gotten me there. That was really the end of my campaign that night, I think.

JIM LEHRER: Is that right?

VICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: That's what I thought.

JIM LEHRER: And did you know that, that night, when it was over?

Vice President MondaleVICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: Yes, I walked off and I was almost certain the campaign was over, and it was.

JIM LEHRER: Did you say that to anybody?


JIM LEHRER: If you had found that you were willing to go after him on that issue in the second debate on whether or not he was losing it or not, whether or not he had the capacity, the mental capacity to function as president. Would that have hurt you in the long run more than it would have hurt him?

VICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: Yes. First of all, I would never have done it. I just am not that kind of politician. Secondly, I think people say here's a mean man and this is a personal below the belt thing, and I'm not going to vote for a person like that, and I think that would have... I think I would have been spanked. What I did do, which I thought was perfectly proper, was I tried to make a big issue out of a president who was out of touch, uninformed, not involved, because I thought there was abundant evidence of that.

JIM LEHRER: Ironically, the one candidate who has participated in more nationally televised debates than any other also is the candidate who most loathed having to debates, George Bush.

REPORTER: Are you anxious about the next debate or are you anxious about Mr. Bush's performance tonight?

(Reagan shakes head "no.")

VICE PRESIDENT BUSH: If he's not, I am.

JIM LEHRER: You've participated in one vice presidential debate and five presidential debates. Generally, what kind of an experience was it for you?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Ugly, I don't like 'em.

JIM LEHRER: Why not?

President George BushPRESIDENT BUSH: Well, partially I wasn't too good at 'em. Secondly, there's some of its contrived. Show business. You prompt to get the answers ahead of time. 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, I want to be sure I remember what Leslie's going to ask and get this answer. No that answers not quite concise and that's always. There's a certain artificiality to it, lack of spontaneity to it. And, I don't know, I just felt uncomfortable about it.

JIM LEHRER: As Ronald Reagan's running mate in 1980, George Bush did not debate incumbent Vice President Walter Mondale. But in 1984, Bush, the incumbent, did debate his opponent, New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro.

GERALDINE FERRARO: I said the thing...the only thing that would scare me in a campaign or running the country is that debate that you'd have to do during the campaign.

JIM LEHRER: Walter Mondale knew his choice of Ferraro as a running mate was a political risk. In Congress, Ferraro was strongly critical of President Reagan's economic policies. But she ad served only three terms in the House. On the national stage, Ferraro was a political unknown. But she gained notoriety simply by being the first woman from either major political party ever to run on a presidential ticket.

On October 11, 1984, Geraldine Ferraro met Vice President George Bush on the stage of Philadelphia's Civic Theater for their one and only debate.

Geraldine FerraroGERALDINE FERRARO: The responsibility that I had at that point, Jim, was I think rather unique. It was more than the fact that I was the Vice Presidential candidate on a ticket that was challenging the incumbent President and the Vice President, but here I was as the first woman and you know I was standing in for millions of women in this the country.

JOHN MASHEK, Panelist: "Despite the historic aspects of your candidacy, how do you account for the fact that a majority of women - at least according to the polls - favor the Reagan-Bush ticket over the Mondale-Ferraro ticket?

GERALDINE FERRARO: I don't. Let me say that I'm not a believer in polls and let me say further that what we are talking about are problems that are facing the entire nation. They're not just problems facing women.

GERALDINE FERRARO: If I messed up, I was messing up for them. And I, it was, the responsibility I mean was very, very sharp.

JIM LEHRER: In a way, the same "historic aspect" of Ferraro's candidacy weighed on George Bush as well.

PRESIDENT BUSH: The tensest was against Ferraro.

JIM LEHRER: Why, why was this so tense?

Bush and FerraroPRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I think the press was automatically divided. I think a lot of the females in the press corps said this was one of us. You could here 'em clapping. Room behind, I couldn't but all the spinmeisters...

JIM LEHRER: Press people were, press people were applauding?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Absolutely, the spinmeisters were behind the scene listening as the journalists were clapping and it was, it was, it was a tough one.

JIM LEHRER: Did you have an objective... a bottom line of what you wanted to accomplish?

GERALDINE FERRARO: Oh yeah. And it was -- it was not beating George Bush, believe it or not. The bottom line as far as I was concerned was presenting to the public who Gerry Ferraro was. The polls indicated that I was feisty, that I was tough, that I had a sense of humor, but they weren't quite sure if they liked me and they didn't know whether or not that I was substantive.

JIM LEHRER: George Bush spent much of the evening defending the Reagan economic plan. And more than once during the debate words escaped him.

Vice President BushVICE PRESIDENT BUSH: Almost every place you can point, contrary to Mr. Mondale's - I gotta be careful - but contrary of how he goes around just saying everything bad. If he sees -- If somebody sees a silver lining, he finds a big black cloud out there. Whine on harvest moon!

PRESIDENT BUSH: I was the guy who just said English was my second language so maybe I'm a little...

JIM LEHRER: While Bush struggled with the English language, Ferraro worried about the extent of her knowledge of world affairs.

GERALDINE FERRARO: I didn't serve on a committee that dealt with foreign policy. And though I spent a good deal of time working the issues as votes came to the floor, it really wasn't where I was most comfortable. So I was nervous about it.

Geraldine FerraroGERALDINE FERRARO: Let me first say that terrorism is a global problem...

JIM LEHRER: Early in the debate, Vice President Bush had criticized former President Carter for his handling of the Iran hostage crisis. Ferraro, in turn, questioned President Reagan's response to the more recent embassy and Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon.

GERALDINE FERRARO: Are we going to take proper precautions before we put Americans in situations where they're in danger, or are we just going to walk away, throwing our arms up in the air now - quite a reversal from the first time, from the first time when he said he was going to do something? Or is this president going to take some action?

JIM LEHRER: Bush's response led to the most memorable exchange of the debate.

VICE PRESIDENT BUSH: Let me help you with the difference, Mrs. Ferraro, between Iran and the Embassy in Lebanon. In Iran, we were held by a foreign government. In Lebanon you had a wanton, terrorist action where the government opposed it.

MODERATOR: Congresswoman Ferraro.

GERALDINE FERRARO: Let me just say, first of all, that I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Patronize...

JIM LEHRER: Patronize, don't pat-

PRESIDENT BUSH: Don't patronize, don't patronize me. I mean there was this...

JIM LEHRER: That was her, that was the big line of that debate.

President BushPRESIDENT BUSH: I think she was ready. She'd probably been rehearsed for that and I can't even remember what it was and I said let me help you with that or something. And oh that brought the crowd to its feet.

GERALDINE FERRARO: I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to scold. I didn't want to tell him that he wasn't dealing with me as an equal. I didn't want to have to do that. I wanted just to focus on me and I didn't want to give any sort of negative impression to anybody who was watching.

JIM LEHRER: Was that line a rehearsed line?

GERALDINE FERRARO: Absolutely not. No. I was forced into it. I was forced into it because he wanted to, he was trying to teach me about foreign policy and that was a put down.

George Bush was very nervous immediately following the debate. When we went up on the stage my husband, my children came up to join him and his wife and his children who all came up on stage. And he looked a little bit rattled.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Those big time things...tension city, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: But here you sit as one of the most successful politicians in modern U.S. history and yet one of the major vehicles that people use to get elected, you despise.

PRESIDENT BUSH: I don't know if it helped me or hurt me to get elected. I'd like someone to show me that it helped me to get elected than I might change my mind but I don't think so. I don't think so.

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Candidate Interviews

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

George H.W. Bush (R),

Jimmy Carter (D),

Bill Clinton (D),

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

Micheal Dukakis (D),
Governor (MA)

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

Gerald Ford (R),

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

Walter Mondale (D),
Vice President

Dan Quayle (R),
Vice President

Ronald Reagan (R),

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