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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/Clinton Debates
September 24, 2000

JIM LEHRER: Historically, the major candidates for president of the United States traveled similar paths. They built political resumes and their campaigns for the white House were months if not years in the making. In 1992, that certainly was the rout Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton had traveled.

But suddenly, there was Ross Perot. The Texas billionaire businessman jumped into the race for president in the Spring of 1992, carrying with him a long list of domestic gripes; the deficit, the economy, jobs, trade, education reform. Perot's challenge simply added to the concerns of the incumbent president, George Bush.

HELEN THOMAS, Panelist: Mr. President, why have you dropped so dramatically in the leadership polls from the high 80's to the 40's?

President BushPRESIDENT BUSH: Well, I think the answer to why the drop, I think, has been the economy in the doldrums.

JIM LEHRER: For George Bush, his shining moment had been Desert Storm. He forged an international coalition against Saddam Hussein. As Commander in Chief, he brought swift and certaine defeat on the Iraqi Army. The troops came home heroes and George Bush's approval rating neared 90 percent. And then the economy went flat.

PRESIDENT BUSH: The whole world has had economic problems; we're doing better than a lot of the countries in the world. And we're going to lead the way out of this economic recession across this world and economic slowdown here at home.

JIM LEHRER: President Bush said he was energized by the crowds that turned out to see him during he reelection campaign. But there still was that part of the campaign he did not enjoy, the televised debates. Nevertheless, President Bush agreed to three of them.

JIM LEHRER: You didn't want to debate then either.

President BushPRESIDENT BUSH: No, I don't think-- I think maybe '92 was because third party. Giving Perot that, you know, kind of standing that comes from being out there. I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about that at all.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: My feeling was that Perot had brought an important element into the '92 campaign and he showed that there was a sense that neither party was fully representing the American people. And I thought that given the fact he was about 15 percent in the polls, I just thought that you know there was literally no justification for keeping him out.

JIM LEHRER: Perot seemed impatient in the debate setting, as if he wanted to bet on the with the job before it was even offered to him. He delivered rapid-fire responses.

ROSS PEROT: Look at all three of us. Decide who you think will do the job, pick that person in November because believe me, as I've said before, the party's over and it's time for the cleanup crew.

JIM LEHRER: Perot on making sacrifices:

Ross PerotROSS PEROT: I think it's a good time to face it in November. If they do, then they will have heard the harsh reality of what we have to do. I'm not playing Lawrence Welk music tonight.

JIM LEHRER: Perot on drug dealers:

ROSS PEROT: There are guys that couldn't get a job, third shift in a Dairy Queen, driving BMW's and Mercedes selling drugs.

JIM LEHRER: And Perot on his lack of experience:

ROSS PEROT: I don't have any experience in running up a $4 trillion debt. I don't have any experience in gridlock government, where nobody takes responsibility for anything and everybody blames everybody else.

PRESIDENT BUSH: I figured he would be going after me not Clinton. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't I don't know.

JIM LEHRER: Bill Clinton certainly was going after George Bush.

Gov. ClintonGOVERNOR CLINTON: Tonight I have to say to the President; Mr. Bush, for 12 years you've had it your way; you've had your chance and it didn't work. It's time to change.

JIM LEHRER: Part of President Bush's debate strategy was to question Bill Clinton's character. He cited, in particular, Clinton's anti-war protests in Europe during Vietnam.

PRESIDENT BUSH: I think it's wrong to demonstrate against your own country or organize demonstrations against your own country in foreign soil. I just think it's wrong. Maybe they say, well, it's a youthful indiscretion. I was 19 or 20 flying off an aircraft carrier, and that shaped me to be Commander in Chief of the armed forces. And I'm sorry, but demonstrating -- it's not a question of patriotism. It's a question of character and judgment. Some say, well, you're a little old-fashioned. Maybe I am, but I just don't think that's right.

GOVERNOR CLINTON: When Joe McCarthy went around this country attacking people's patriotism, he was wrong. He was wrong. And a Senator from Connecticut stood up to him named Prescott Bush. Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy. You were wrong to attack my patriotism. I was opposed to the war but I love my country and we need a President who will bring this country together, not divide it. We've got enough division. I want to lead a unified country.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel generally about how you did in those 1992 debates? Do you feel you won all three of them?

President ClintonPRESIDENT CLINTON: Well I thought I did quite well. I think I was a little nervous in the beginning but I thought I did real well in the first time and I was a little supposed that the polls showed that most people thought Perot had done better than I did.

JIM LEHRER: That St. Louis debate and the third debate at Michigan State University used traditional formats with a panel of reporters asked the questions. But the second debate in Richmond, Virginia on October 17 had a look much different than any debate before.

CAROLE SIMPSON, Moderator: Tonight's program is unlike any other presidential debate in history --we're making history now and it's pretty exciting.

JIM LEHRER: It was the first time a "town hall" format was used in a presidential debate. An audience of uncommitted voters was selected to ask questions on any topic they chose. The format was the idea of Governor Bill Clinton.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Boy, I really wanted that, because I'd done a lot of town meetings and I--

JIM LEHRER: That's your favorite format isn't it?

President ClintonPRESIDENT CLINTON: Absolutely, because I think presidents should accountable to citizens and I think it's very interesting the questions they ask and the way they ask them. Those folks who are out there trying to put lives together, and you know, pay bills, and send their kids to college and deal with all the things that people deal with. And that's their perspective… It's the flesh and blood of America, so I love those things, and I loved that one. I think I did very well there.

JIM LEHRER: Questions from the audience touched mainly on domestic concerns. President Bush tried to inject the character issue.

PRESIDENT BUSH: I think the first negative campaign run in this election was by Governor Clinton. And I'm not going to sit there and be a punching bag. I'm going to stand up and say, 'Hey, listen, here's my side of it." But character is an important part of the equation.

JIM LEHRER: The president was promptly scolded for his remarks.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Can we focus on the issues and not the personalities and the mud? I think there is, there is a need, if we can take a poll here, with the folks from Gallup perhaps, I think there is a real need here to focus at this point on the needs.

CAROLE SIMPSON: How do you respond? How do you gentlemen respond to…

Gov. ClintonGOVERNOR CLINTON: I agree with him. I worked 12 years very hard as a governor on the real problems of real people. I'm just as sick as you are by having to wake up and figure out how to defend myself every day. I never thought I'd ever be involved in anything like this.

CAROL SIMPSON: President Bush. How would you like to respond to this?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Let's do it. Let's talk about programs for children.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Could we cross our hearts; it sounds silly here, but could we make a commitment? You know, we're not under oath at this point, but could you make a commitment to the citizens of the United States to meet our needs, and we have many.

President BushPRESIDENT BUSH: What I didn't know is that beforehand they had rehearsed and identified some of the questioners and there was some guy that was you know so clearly was going to be antagonistic to me and the way the questions was asked and I was told later, that how about you back there in the 4th row, and they singled him out to be the contentious questioner of George Bush. I mean that's, that's show business. Now should I have been able to react better and do a better job I guess probably.

JIM LEHRER: And for President Bush the evening only got worse.

JIM LEHRER: The Richmond debate, Mr. President, you know you caught a lot of heat for looking at your watch. What was that all about, remember that?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Well I wasn't too conscientious of it at all.

Jim LehrerJIM LEHRER: I know… well, do you remember that?

PRESIDENT BUSH: It was he's bored. Yeah, oh God, do I remember I took a huge hit.

JIM LEHRER: The television cameras caught President Bush looking at his wristwatch midway through the debate and again thirty minutes later.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I remember I saw it at the time.

JIM LEHRER: You did see it at the time?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Mm hmm, I saw him looking at his watch. And I thought, I felt, when I saw it, that he was, you know, uncomfortable in that setting and wanted it to be over with.

PRESIDENT BUSH: You look at your watch and they say that he shouldn't had any business running for president. He's bored. He's out of this thing, he's not with it and we need change. It took a little incident like that to show that I was you know out of it. They made a huge thing out of that.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: But I think the reason so much was made of it is that the impression was forming that here was a very good man who was very devoted to our country but just didn't really believe that all these domestic issues should be dominating the way they were. If someone had caught me or Ross Perot looking at our watch, unless it had been a bad moment in the debate, it probably wouldn't have resonated. But I think -- the reason the watch thing hurt so badly was it tended to reinforce the problem he had in the election.

President BushPRESIDENT BUSH: Now, was I glad when the damn thing was over. Yeah. And maybe that's why I was looking at it, only 10 more minutes of this crap, I mean. (laughter) Go ahead and use it. I'm a free spirit now.

JIM LEHRER: No, that's in there, that's on the tape don't worry.

PRESIDENT BUSH: That's in. Run it. Make that the heading as far as I'm concerned.

JIM LEHRER: Of all of these debates--

PRESIDENT BUSH: If I said that then I would've done better. But your on guard....

JIM LEHRER: Oh sure...

PRESIDENT BUSH: You don't want to make a mistake. You don't want to say anything that's gonna offend.

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: I doesn't help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another life style choice.

JIM LEHRER: Throughout his four years as vice president, Dan Quayle remained the focus of close media attention.

Vice President QuayleVICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: I'm sure that the media elite and Hollywood didn't like the speech that I gave by the American people support what I'm talking about and I'm talking about values and I'm talking about family I'm talking about integrity.

JIM LEHRER: But Quayle was determined not to be the issue of the 1992 campaign. In preparing for his one and only nationally televised debate, Quayle wanted the issue to be Bill Clinton.

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: I decided to have two or three issues that I wanted to bring up with Bill Clinton. But again in a vice presidential debate, you really do ignore the person on the stage. In this particular case I had known Al Gore better than I knew Lloyd Bentsen.

JIM LEHRER: Al Gore had been elected to Congress in 1976, the same years as Quayle. They served together on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: I knew him. I'd debated him. I knew him pretty well.

JIM LEHRER: But there was a third candidate in the '92 debate that neither Quayle nor Gore, nor the viewing audience knew much about. He was Admiral James Stockdale, Ross Perot's running mate on the Reform ticket. The three men took the stage at Georgia Tech University on October 13, 1992. Several news organizations later would describe the event as a brawl.

JIM LEHRER: In general terms, how would you characterize that experience for you?

ADMIRAL STOCKDALE: It was terribly frustrating because I-- remember I started with...

Admiral StockdaleADMIRAL STOCKDALE: Who am I? Why am I here? (laughter)

ADMIRAL STOCKDALE: ...and I never got back to that because there was never an opportunity for me to explain my life to people It was so different from Quayle and Gore.

James Stockdale was a career Navy man; A fighter pilot who went through flight school with John Glenn. He was shot down over North Vietnam in 1965, taken prisoner and for seven and a half years withstood severe torture and starvation. As the senior officer, Stockdale created a prison civilization that allowed the captured Americans to communicate with each other, boosting their morale and will to survive. Stockdale received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions, rose to the rank of vice admiral and served as president of the Naval War College.

Admiral StockdaleADMIRAL STOCKDALE: The four years in solitary confinement in Vietnam, seven and a half years in prisons, drop the first bomb that started the first American bombing raid in the North Vietnam. I don't say it just to brag, but, I mean, my sensitivities are completely different.

ADMIRAL STOCKDALE: -- the best thing I had going for me was I had no contact with Washington for all those years.

JIM LEHRER: At the start of the debate, Al Gore praised Stockdale in a way that left Quayle out.

SENATOR GORE: Admiral Stockdale, may I say it's a special honor to share this stage with you. Those of us who served in Vietnam looked at you as a national hero even before you were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

JIM LEHRER: Gore had a special greeting prepared for Quayle.

SENATOR GORE: And Mr. Vice President. Dan, if I may. I'll make you a deal this evening. If you don't try to compare George Bush to Harry Truman, I won't compare you to Jack Kennedy.

JIM LEHRER: Quayle took the remark good naturedly, but the cordial atmosphere degenerated quickly.

Vice President QuayleVICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: There are two things that I'm going to stress during this debate: One, Bill Clinton's economic plan and his agenda will make matters much, much worse. He will raise your taxes, he will increase spending, he will make government bigger. Jobs will be lost. Second, Bill Clinton does not have the strength nor the character to be President of the United States.

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: There was a lot of excitement in the Republican circles right after that debate, because we had scored a lot of points on that trust and taxes, and Gore just refused to defend Clinton.

JIM LEHRER: Gore responded with attacks on Bush and Quayle.

SENATOR GORE: When the recession came they were like a deer caught in the headlights -- paralyzed into inaction, blinded to the suffering and pain of bankruptcies and people who were unemployed.

JIM LEHRER: As the two exchanged blows, Admiral Stockdale for the most part remained merely a spectator.

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: Bill Clinton has trouble telling the truth and truth and integrity are prerequisites to being president of the United States.

Sen. GoreSENATOR GORE: I want to respond to that, I want to respond to that. George Bush, in case you've forgotten, Dan, said "Read my lips. No new taxes." And you know what?

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: I didn't think I was going to hear that tonight."


VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: Pass our Family Leave Act, because it goes to small businesses where the major problem is. Your proposal excluded small business. That's the problem. Now, let me talk about health care and --

SENATOR GORE: Did you require it? Did you require it?


SENATOR GORE: Did you require it?

Vice President QuayleVICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: My turn.

SENATOR GORE: It's a free discussion.

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: Take a breath, Al. Inhale.

SENATOR GORE: It's a free discussion.

HAL BRUNO, Moderator: Could we give Admiral Stockdale a chance to jump in here if he wants to, if he dares to?

ADMIRAL STOCKDALE: I would like to get in. I feel like I'm an observer at a ping-pong game.

JIM LEHRER: ... and that's what it boiled down to, is that right, for you?

ADMIRAL STOCKDALE: Yeah. The whole thing reminded me of a May pole dance. I was standing there trying to figure out how I could get my oar in and never really did. And they're just exercising right where they live everyday. They'll take an issue like Medicare, and they'll go from this way to that, and there's four different ways you can look at it, and they dance counter-clockwise a while. I said, what am I doing here? How can I break in and tell them this is - that's not the whole story on being the national leader.

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: Why is Bill Clinton qualified to be president of the United States? You've talked about the worst economy --

Hal BrunoHAL BRUNO: Now, wait a minute. The question was about --

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: -- in 50 years.

SENATOR GORE: I'll be happy to answer those. May I answer

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: Why is he qualified to be president of the United States?

SENATOR GORE: I'll be happy to --

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: I want to go back and make a point -

SENATOR GORE: Well, you've asked me the question. If you won't answer my question, I will answer yours.

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: I have not asked you a question. I'm making a statement. I hope America is listening very closely to this debate tonight.

Admiral StockdaleADMIRAL STOCKDALE: And I think America is seeing right now the reason this nation is in gridlock. (cheers)

JIM LEHRER: Stockdale's responses generally drew positive reactions throughout the evening. But the Admiral couldn't provide the kind of detail on issues that came almost second nature to the other two candidates.

ADMIRAL STOCKDALE: I felt so helpless to this business of not having any papers. That seems like a throwback to a school boy.

JIM LEHRER: Taking an exam of some kind?

ADMIRAL STOCKDALE: Yeah, and you know, I don't have, I can learn about it but, I mean, that isn't the thing I get up in the morning and start sweating about.

JIM LEHRER: But there were a lot of - a lot of criticism of you, of course, as you know, was that you were not prepared on the issues like that?

HAL BRUNO: Admiral Stockdale, would you like to start the discussion period?

ADMIRAL STOCKDALE: Well, I'm out of ammunition on this --

Sen. GoreSENATOR GORE: Well, let me talk then…

JIM LEHRER: Is that a fair criticism?

ADMIRAL STOCKDALE: That's a fair criticism, but I didn't get much help from anybody about it.

In fact, Stockdale says he didn't even know he was scheduled to debate until just days before.

ADMIRAL STOCKDALE: We didn't know. Sybil and I were on the -

JIM LEHRER: Sybil's your wife.

ADMIRAL STOCKDALE: Sybil's my wife. Sybil said, "Are you going to have to be in that - if they have a V.P. debate" - and it hadn't been really decided yet - "you're not going to have to be in that, are you?" I said, "No, everybody knows I'm not a politician." And about a week before the debate I called Ross. I seldom called him, but in this case I said, "You know, I'm in luck. Nobody has ever mentioned that debate, and it's too late to invite me, and I think that's as it ought to be because I'm not a politician."

He said, "Oh, Jim, I forgot to tell you. Your invitation came here about three weeks ago and we accepted for you, and I forgot to tell you." So that was the preparation.

Jim LehrerJIM LEHRER: So you never sat down with briefing books, or didn't discuss this with Ross Perot in any way whatsoever?

ADMIRAL STOCKDALE: I never had a single conversation about politics with Ross Perot in my life; still haven't.

JIM LEHRER: But during his one and only night in the national political spotlight, Admiral Stockdale did more than just throw out one-liners.

ADMIRAL STOCKDALE: The lifeblood of our economy is investment. And right now when we pay $350-- we borrow $ 350 billion a year -- it saps the money markets, and the private investors are not getting their share.

HAL BRUNO: Let's talk about the abortion debate. Admiral Stockdale.

ADMIRAL STOCKDALE: I believe that a woman owns her body and what she does with it is her own business, period.

HAL BRUNO: That's it?

Admiral StockdaleADMIRAL STOCKDALE: I don't --I, too, abhor abortions, but I don't think they should be made illegal, and I don't -- and I don't think it's a political issue.

ADMIRAL STOCKDALE: Well, I believe that, and I hadn't given it much thought, but I've got four daughters-in-law that would be pretty mad at me if I'd said much else.

JIM LEHRER: And Stockdale felt he was particularly suited to address questions of character.

ADMIRAL STOCKDALE: Sure, you have to know where you're going with your government, but character is the big variable in the success. Character of the leaders is the big variable in the success -- long-term success -- of an administration.

The determining factor in electoral success should be a proven character. And you've got to design these debates so that everybody can somehow portray his character.

JIM LEHRER:The '92 debate. What did the presence of Admiral Stockdale do for you?

Vice President QuayleVICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: In a way he helped me somewhat because he agreed with some of the things I was saying. But it's not good having a three-way debate. It's a two-way debate. You really want to have that head to head. In a three-way debate, it gets cluttered.

JIM LEHRER: He wasn't a distraction from your point of view?

VICE PRESIDENT QUAYLE: I wouldn't use the word distraction, but it was more difficult to continue to focus on Clinton and Gore with Admiral Stockdale there, because I didn't want to talk about Perot. We were really just trying to forget about Ross Perot, and so therefore I would just as soon him not have been on the stage.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think in the final analysis you would have been, in fact, a good vice president of the United States?

ADMIRAL STOCKDALE: I think so. I think so. I've done nothing but manage - I mean, I'm - yeah, I think I would have been surprisingly good, because I call them like I see them, and I think I'm fair-minded and I have a good understanding of international law, and all the other accouterments that are necessary for military decision-making at a high level. And Ike didn't do too badly, did he?"


1st Documentary







2nd Documentary

1st Documentary Recap



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

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