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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 Bush/Dukakis Debates
September 24, 2000

PRESIDENT REAGAN: I figure with the convention coming up at which you will be the standard bearer and so forth, you could probably use this gavel. And if not there, from experience I can tell you there'll be a lot of meetings with congressional leadership at which you can use that.

JIM LEHRER: As Ronald Reagan's running mate, George Bush rode to two easy victories. But in 1988, Bush was heading the ticket and by no means was he running away with the election. Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis led in the presidential preference polls for much of the summer, but George Bush managed to close the gap.

SAM DONALDSON, ABC News: Governor, Bush says he's delighted that you now admitted you're a liberal and that the debate ought to be between you and you.

JIM LEHRER: So tight was the race that many thought the ultimate winner would be decided by a face-to-face debate. The candidates agreed to two of them.

JIM LEHRER: Do you feel that the outcome of the election was affected at all by those two debates?

Gov. DukakisGOVERNOR DUKAKIS: I think, probably, Jim. I thought I did a pretty good job on the first debate, not a very good job on the second debate. And, I think, had I done a better job, particularly in that second debate, it might have made some difference.

JIM LEHRER: That second debate is remembered for the the first question and answer of the evening. The site was Los Angeles, October 13, 1988. CNN's Bernard Shaw was the moderator.

BERNARD SHAW, Moderator: The first question goes to Governor Dukakis; you have two minutes to respond. Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?

GOVERNOR DUKAKIS: No, I don't, Bernard, and I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime. We've done so in my own state and it's one of the reasons why we have had the biggest drop in crime of any industrial state in America, why we have the lowest murder rate of any industrial state in America.

Jim LehrerJIM LEHRER: First of all, do you think that was a fair question?

GOVERNOR DUKAKIS: Oh sure. Sure. I mean anybody like me, who is opposed to the death penalty is certainly, should be subject to that kind of a question. I think it is a perfectly legitimate question.

JIM LEHRER: You were criticized for your answer. Explain what you, what was going through your mind at that moment. What you were doing?

GOVERNOR DUKAKIS: Well, if you have been against the death penalty as I have, and this has been an issue in virtually every campaign I've ever run in, you are asked that question, or a variation of it about a thousand times. And I had been. Unfortunately, I answered it as if I'd been asked it a thousand times.

JIM LEHRER: You answered it as an issue question.

GOVERNOR DUKAKIS: Yeah, basically.

President BushPRESIDENT BUSH: Mike Dukakis seemed flustered by it and instead of saying I'd kill him if I could get my hands on him. There was some kind of politically correct answer. And I think that hurt him.

JIM LEHRER: When the debate was over, did your folks tell you, "Hey, governor, you've got a problem with that answer?"

GOVERNOR DUKAKIS: I don't think they said it that emphatically, but I don't think they were happy with my answer.

JIM LEHRER: Sitting here now, do you wish you had done it differently?

GOVERNOR DUKAKIS: Yeah, I guess so. On the other hand, I've listened and watched myself respond to that, but I have to tell you and maybe I'm just still missing it or something. I didn't think it was that bad. You know. But maybe it was. And again, I think you have to be aware of the fact when you are debating, and you have say a couple of debates, that a huge number of people are watching you and although you've been answering these kinds of questions all during the campaign, or for that matter all during your political career, for many people, it is the first time they have had a chance to look at you. And so, I think you have to be sensitive to that. And obviously, I wasn't."

JIM LEHRER: But the tone of Michael Dukakis' response did not come as a complete surprise. Throughout the campaign, critics charged Dukakis lacked emotion. And Dukakis was asked directly about it during his first debate with George Bush in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on September 25th. The question trigged a series of punches and counter-punches that made this debate one of the most entertaining of any campaign.

PETER JENNINGS, ABC News: Governor, one theme that keeps coming up about the way you govern is passionless, technocratic--

Dukakis and JenningsGOVERNOR DUKAKIS: Passionless?

PETER JENNINGS: Passionless, technocratic, the smartest clerk in the world.

GOVERNOR DUKAKIS: Peter, I care deeply about people, all people, working people, working families, people all over this country who in some cases are living from paycheck to paycheck, in other cases are having a hard time opening up the door of college opportunity to their children, in other cases, don't have basic health insurance which for most of us we accept as a matter of course and assume we're going to have in order to pay the bills that we incur when we get sick. I'm somebody who believes deeply in genuine opportunity for every single citizen in this country and that's the kind of passion I brought to my state.

GOVERNOR DUKAKIS: Look, I am a guy who is, anybody who knows me, knows feels very passionate about things. I think I have a reasonably good sense of humor, although I am not sure that came through in the campaign. But then, that's part of the problem with campaigns.

MODERATOR: Mr. Vice President?

Vice President BushVICE PRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I don't question his passion. But in my view it's misguided passion. He - we have a big difference on issues. You see, last year in the primary he expressed his passion. He said, "I am a strong liberal Democrat" - August '87. Then he said "I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU." That was what he said."

PETER JENNINGS: You've used the phrase card carrying so many times since Governor Dukakis first acknowledged that he was a card-carrying member of the ACLU that some people have come to believe that you've used it to brand him in some way, to identify him as people were identified in the 1950's as less than patriotic. What is so wrong with the Governor being a member of an organization which has come to the defense of, among other people Colonel Oliver North?

VICE PRESIDENT BUSH: Nothing's wrong with it. He has every right to exercise his passion, as what he said, a strong progressive liberal. I don't agree with that. I come from a very different point of view.

GOVERNOR DUKAKIS: Well, look. I'm not a conservative. I'm a liberal Democrat. I like to think I'm a fiscally responsible liberal Democrat but I am a liberal Democrat. I am a member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Maybe I should have turned to him and said, "Well, I'd rather be a member of the ACLU than the National Rifle Association." I didn't say that.

JIM LEHRER: Here's what Michael Dukakis did say.

Governor DukakisGOVERNOR DUKAKIS: Well, I hope this is the first and last time I have to say this. Of course the Vice President is questioning my patriotism. I don't think there is any question about that. And I resent it. I resent it. My parents came to this country as immigrants. They taught me that this was the greatest country in the world. I'm in public service because I love this country. I believe in it. And nobody's going to question my patriotism as the Vice President has now repeatedly.

GOVERNOR DUKAKIS: If you are going to run for the presidency then the other guy is going to come at you with this stuff. You better be ready for it. It's got to be part of your overall campaign and if these issues arise during a debate, you've got to be ready for them. You just can't sit there mute.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Its show business, Jim, its not really debating or getting into detail on issues or what your experience has been. Too much prompting, too much artificiality, and not really debates. They're rehearsed appearances.

JIM LEHRER: Some of the responses obviously were rehearsed.

GOVERNOR DUKAKIS: He wants to give the wealthiest taxpayers in this country a five-year, $40-billion tax break and he also wants to spend a lot of money on additional programs. If he keeps this up he's going to be the Joe Isuzu of American politics.

VICE PRESIDENT BUSH: Is this the time to unleash our one-liners? That answer was about as clear as Boston Harbor.

Vice President BushVICE PRESIDENT BUSH: Do not erode out of the system the thousand points of light; the people that are out there trying to help these kids.

GOVERNOR DUKAKIS: A thousand points of light, I don't know what that means.

PRESIDENT BUSH: We are going to make some changes and some tough choices before we go to deployment on the Midgetman missile or on the Minuteman, whatever it is. We're going to have to - the MX - MX - we're going to have to do that. It's Christmas. It's Christmas. Wouldn't it be nice to be perfect. Wouldn't it be nice to be the iceman so you never make a mistake.

PRESIDENT BUSH: I'd hoped this had been a little friendlier an evening. I'd wanted to hitchhike a ride home in his tank with him...

GOVERNOR DUKAKIS: Well, I was going to try to keep it positive. I mean, in retrospect, that's just stupid.

JIM LEHRER: However, there was one issue of serious concern for George Bush that emerged during the campaign. It was an issues Bush knew would come up during the debates.

JOHN MASHEK, Panelist: Mr. Vice President, the Democrats and even some Republicans are still expressing reservations about the qualifications and credentials of Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana, your chosen running mate, to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency. What do you see in him that others do not?

Vice President BushVICE PRESIDENT BUSH: I see a young man that was elected to the Senate twice, to the House of Representatives twice. I see a man who is young, and I am putting my confidence in a whole generation of people that are in their 30's and in their 40's. So judge the man on his record, not on a lot of rumors and innuendo and trying to fool around with his name. My opponent says J. Danforth Quayle. Do you know who J. Danforth was? He was a man that gave his life in World War II. So ridiculing a person's name is a little beneath this process, and he'll do very well when we get into the debate.

JOHN MASHEK: Governor?

GOVERNOR DUKAKIS: Well, when it comes to ridicule, George, you win a gold medal. I think we can agree on that.

VICE PRESIDENT BUSH: Just the facts.

GOVERNOR DUKAKIS: I think the American people have a right to judge us on this question - on how we picked our running mate, a person who is a heartbeat away from the Presidency. I picked Lloyd Bentsen, a distinguished, strong, mature, a leader in the Senate, somebody whose qualifications nobody has questioned. Mr. Bush picked Dan Quayle. I doubt very much that Dan Quayle was the best qualified person for that job. And as a matter of fact, I think for most people, the notion of President Quayle is a very, very troubling notion tonight.

VICE PRESIDENT BUSH: My choice for the Vice Presidency is Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana.

JIM LEHRER: The media, political opponents, even some loyal Republicans turned the heat on George Bush from the moment he chose Dan Quayle as his running mate. But it didn't compare to the intense political and personal examination Quayle had to withstand. Questions about his grades in college and questions about using family influence to get in the National Guard and avoid possible combat in Vietnam.

SENATOR QUAYLE: I got into the National Guard fairly. I did not ask anybody to break the rules and as far as I know nobody did break the rules. I got in fairly.

JIM LEHRER: And there were questions in general about what Quayle had accomplished in Congress to deserve the vice presidency.

SENATOR QUAYLE: Look... I answered many questions last night on all three television networks, CNN, public television. I'm going to continue to answer questions that you raise about me, about issues, about anything throughout this campaign.

JIM LEHRER: Tens of millions of Americans were waiting to hear Quayle's answers when he took the stage at Omaha's Civic Theater to debate Lloyd Bentsen, October 5, 1988.

JIM LEHRER: How did you prepare for that?

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: I prepared for that debate probably the way you should not prepare for a debate and that is to really to get all the policy questions down to the nth degree. Have your four points, get it memorized. It's like taking an exam. And you cram it all in there, knowing that somewhere along the line you're going to be able to use it.

SENATOR QUAYLE: In national security and arms control, you have to understand the relationship between a ballistic missile, a warhead, what throw weight, what megatonnage is. You better understand about telemetry and encryption and you better understand that you have to negotiate from a position of strength.

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: Of course you have to know the policy. You've got to have that. But you have to be in my judgment, you've got to be somewhat relaxed.

SENATOR QUAYLE: Now you will have a choice to make on Election Day, you will have a choice of whether America is going to choose the road of Michael Dukakis or the road of George Bush, as we march toward the 21st century.

Vice President QuayleVICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: Going back looking at the debate on television I could see that I was over-prepared, over-coached, if you will, not relaxed, and not as in control as much as I thought I should have been.

JIM LEHRER: There was little pressure on Lloyd Bentsen. He was an experienced, respected senator; chairman of the Finance Committee and a successful businessman. Bentsen was neither a target of tough questions from the press panel nor from Quayle.

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: Absolutely. Leave Bentsen alone. He was a gentleman, he was a figure in the Senate. I knew him well. I just went after Dukakis and talked about Dukakis, and I tried to get the L word, if you recall, in the 1988 campaign.

SENATOR QUAYLE: Governor Dukakis is one of the most liberal governors in the United States of America… Because every time there's a problem, the liberal Governor from Massachusetts raises taxes… The most liberal national Democrat to seek the office of Presidency since George McGovern.

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: I must have used that I don't know how many times... a lot.

Jim LehrerJIM LEHRER: There was a feeling that you had to establish yourself as being ready to be president of the United States?

SENATOR BENTSEN: This debate tonight is not about the qualifications for the Vice Presidency. The debate is whether or not Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen are qualified to be President of the United States. The debate is about the presidency itself. And a presidential decision that has to be made by you. The stakes could not be higher.

JIM LEHRER: Did you feel that oh, my goodness, if I make a mistake... if I make a serious mistake, it could hurt George Bush's chances of election?

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: Oh, of course, absolutely, and that's why you're very careful, and choose your words carefully, and make sure that you don't make any major mistakes, gaffes. That's what the press is looking for.

BRIT HUME, Panelist: Let us assume, if we can, for the sake of this question that you become Vice President and the President is incapacitated for one reason or another and you have to take the reins of power. When that moment came, what would be the first steps that you'd take, and why?

Senator QuayleSENATOR QUAYLE: First I'd - first I'd say a prayer for myself and for the country that I'm about to lead. And then I would assemble his people and talk.

BRIT HUME: What would you do next?

SENATOR QUAYLE: I don't believe that it's proper for me to get into the specifics of a hypothetical situation like that.

TOM BROKAW, Panelist: Senator Quayle, I don't mean to beat this drum until it has no more sound left in it, but the follow-up on Brit Hume's question, surely you must have some plan in mind about what you would do if it fell to you to become President of the United States, as it has to so many Vice Presidents just in the last 25 years or so?

SENATOR QUAYLE: Let me try to answer the question one more time. I think this is the fourth time that I have had this question. And I think that --

TOM BROKAW: Third time.

SENATOR QUAYLE: Three times that I have had this question and I'll try to answer it again for you as clearly as I can. It is not just age, it's accomplishments, it's experience. I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of Vice President this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the Presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush Administration if that unfortunate event would ever occur.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Bentsen.

Bentsen and QuayleSENATOR BENTSEN: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy. (applause)

SENATOR QUAYLE: That was really uncalled for, Senator. (Applause)

SENATOR BENTSEN: You're the one that was making the comparison, Senator. And I'm one who knew' him well. And frankly I think you're so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well taken.

JIM LEHRER: Did you think that was a cheap shot? What was your thought when you were standing there and he said that?

Vice President QuayleVICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: We actually had anticipated him using a line like that because during the campaign, if you recall, a lot of people, reporters, probably you, Jim, as well, said well, what kind of experience do you really have, and I would always make the factual reference to the experience that I had in the Congress and the Senate to the experience that Jack Kennedy had before he was elected president a factual statement. That was it. Not any comparison, but it was a factual statement. And the staff said you know, sometime you might get in a little trouble with that. I said look, it's just a statement of fact. They said okay, we know that. What I wasn't anticipating was the crowd getting involved as much, and they got very involved, as you can listen on the tape. That I did not expect… but I was somewhat prepared for his line. It was a good line.

JIM LEHRER: Did you feel it hurt you in the long run?

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: Oh, in the long run, yes, because you guys keep running it over and over again. I'm sure you're going to run it again on this program, and it's not a good moment.

JIM LEHRER: Did you know it was a bad moment at the time?

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: No, I didn't. When I went back and talked to the folks, I said we got our points across, the game plan went well. I don't know how they're going to play that one line. And neither did they. No one knew. And you don't know. It just gets into a sort of a feeding frenzy, if I may use those words, and all of a sudden two or three days later, that becomes the line.

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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),
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Walter Mondale (D),
Vice President

Dan Quayle (R),
Vice President

Ronald Reagan (R),
President

Admiral James Stockdale (I),
1992 Vice Presidential Candidate

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