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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 Clinton/Dole Debates
September 24, 2000

JIM LEHRER: Bob Dole went back to the Senate after his 1976 Election Day defeat and he stayed there for twenty more years, eleven as the Republican leader.

SENATOR DOLE: Oh, it's going to be a good day. The sun's out, I think. Going to open up the Senate for the last time.

JIM LEHRER: In June of 1996, Dole left the Senate for good. He believed one more political goal within his reach, the presidency.

SENATOR DOLE: The new season before me makes this moment far less the closing of one chapter than the opening of another.

JIM LEHRER: At age 73, Dole campaigned vigorously through the summer and fall. But in early October he retreated to Florida. There he prepared for his two televised debates against the incumbent president, Bill Clinton. Dole reviewed briefing books and rehearsed with Hollywood-actor-turned-Senator Fred Thompson. He also thought back to that debate in 1976.

Sen. Bob DoleSENATOR DOLE: Well, I think I learned a lesson from that to be very careful what you say, and really understand you really have to work on your briefing material and what you want to say, and have it pretty well organized.

JIM LEHRER: President Clinton rehearsed as well. Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell played Bob Dole. Mitchell peppered the president with questions on a number of issues; his failed health care initiative, the Republican takeover of Congress, the ongoing Whitewater investigation, among others and the first hints of possible campaign fundraising abuses.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: We went up to Chataqua New York to prepare I remember and it was-- Mitchell was ruthless. You know, I walked in there he'd been preparing for weeks and really done his homework and I just kind a read the books in a cursory way and he literally beat my brains out.

JIM LEHRER: When the candidates met for the first of the two debates in Hartford, Connecticut on October 6, 1996, President Clinton spoke first and tried to set the tone for the evening.

President ClintonPRESIDENT CLINTON: I want to begin by saying again how much I respect Senator Dole and his record of public service, and how hard I will try to make this campaign and this debate one of ideas, not insults.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I was hoping to take a little of the edge off. But I also wanted to show the American people that I liked and respected Bob Dole. And I also did it because I wanted to make clear there still were real differences between us and we could fight those differences out but I was not going to let it interfere with the respect I was showing him as a person.

JIM LEHRER: The expectation was that he really was going to after you on personal issues. The character issues. And he didn't. Were you prepared for him to have done so?


SENATOR DOLE: My view was that and again, you know, there was how far should we go, you know, there was even then should we get into the character thing, and I decided not to do that, even though I was being pushed by some. I said well, you get into that, I think everybody loses. That was my view.

JIM LEHRER: I was going to ask you about that because you were asked. I asked you--

JIM LEHRER: Senator Dole, we've talked most now about differences between the two of you that relate to policy, the issues, and that sort of thing. Are there also significant differences in the more personal area that are relevant to this election? Are there personal differences? That are relevant to this --

Sen. DoleSENATOR DOLE: Well, my blood pressure's lower, and my weight, my cholesterol, but I will not make health an issue in this campaign. I think he's a bit taller than I am, but I think there are personal differences. I mean, I'm not -- I don't like to get into personal matters. As far as I'm concerned, this is a campaign about issues. It's about my vision for America and about his liberal vision for America and not about personal things.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Yeah, I was surprised at the first debate that he didn't hit me a little harder.

SENATOR DOLE: I concluded that once you cross that line, I mean, you know, then I think the campaign goes downhill.

JIM LEHRER: President Clinton was more than happy to keep the debate focused on the accomplishments of his first term.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Four years ago, I ran for president at a time of high unemployment and rising frustration. Now, there's a record: 10 1/2 million more jobs, rising incomes, falling crime rates and welfare rolls, a strong America at peace.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: An incumbent can get in trouble if you talk too much about the past. Because the people feel they hired you to do a good job. And what's really relevant is that evidence that you're moving in the right direction that you are changing in the right way that you are pointing toward the future.

President ClintonPRESIDENT CLINTON: We are better off than we were four years ago. Let's keep it going.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Dole, the president said in his opening statement, 'We are better off today than we were four years ago.' Do you agree?

SENATOR DOLE: Well, he's better off than he was four years ago.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I agree with that. That's right.

SENATOR DOLE: And I may be better off four years from now… We have to tell the truth. We've got people watching tonight and listening tonight, trying to find the truth. And the truth is, there's a lot wrong with America. We need a strong economic package. We need a tax cut. We need the $500 child credit.

JIM LEHRER: When you went into those two debates, the Hartford and then San Diego, you were behind in the polls. Did you feel that hey, this is an opportunity to turn this thing around? Did you think they were that important?

Sen. DoleSENATOR DOLE: You feel that way, but then you've got to determine how am I going to turn it around. That's the hard part. You know, if lightning strikes and he may hit a home run somewhere, but it doesn't happen in debates... and we couldn't figure out any way, at least I couldn't, how are you going to open it up without getting nasty, mean, personal, whatever. And I didn't want to do that.

JIM LEHRER: But the day before the second debate, Bob Dole at least was threatening to get mean and nasty.

SENATOR DOLE: He's not responsible for anything according to him. Nothing that ever happens that is wrong is he responsible for and neither is anybody else's administration. It's always those Republicans or the media or somebody else out there, never Bill Clinton.

JIM LEHRER: However, with tens of millions of television viewers tuning into that second debate, Bob Dole couldn't challenge the president directly.

SENATOR DOLE: There's no doubt about it that many American people have lost their faith in government. They see scandals almost on a daily basis, they see ethical problems in the White House today, they see 900 FBI files of private persons being gathered up by somebody in the White House; nobody knows who hired this man. So there's a great deal of cynicism out there.

JIM LEHRER: There were no questions that evening about scandals or investigations. The "town hall" format with citizens asking the questions made for a friendlier atmosphere. Of the two candidates, President Clinton was more at ease.

President ClintonPRESIDENT CLINTON: It's a little harder in those debates to go after your opponent unless people serve you up the right question. Otherwise the picture is of a debater being disrespectful to the citizens.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: My question is concerning you, Mr. Dole. All the controversy regarding your age, how to you feel you can respond to the young voices of America today and tomorrow?

SENATOR DOLE: One thing that I worried about personally was, you know, the age difference, whether age might have been a factor because I was 73 at the time. President Reagan had been in the seventies, and people were thinking about his illness and all those things. And, of course, Clinton is 50-- twenty-some years younger, so another generation. And so I felt it was important to be alert and not run around the stage, but to walk up to the people as we tried to do.

SENATOR DOLE: Well, I think age is very -- you know, wisdom comes from age, experience and intelligence. And if you have some of each, and have some age, some experience and some intelligence, that adds up to wisdom.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I can only tell you that I don't think Senator Dole is too old to be president. It's the age of his ideas that I question.

JIM LEHRER: Was that a prepackaged line that you brought to the debate?


JIM LEHRER: Did you have a lot of them?

President ClintonPRESIDENT CLINTON: I don't remember for sure but I think so. We did and you don't use them all. If you can leave a memorable line or two in the public consciences like when President Reagan said, "There you go again" -- that kind of thing. So you try, at least I did, I tried to take two or three or four of those lines in my head into all these debates and then if I got the chance to use them and if it didn't seem appropriate I didn't.

JIM LEHRER: In retrospect, do you think it would have mattered any in terms of the outcome, if you had gone after him hot and heavy on the character issue?

SENATOR DOLE: I don't think it would have made much of a difference. It would have reinforced this image that some people have that, you know, Bob Dole is mean and nasty, and now he's picking on President Clinton personally, and I'm not don't think I'm mean and nasty, and I didn't want to reinforce that view that some people may have had.

JIM LEHRER: The two major vice presidential candidates in 1996 were men who previously had made their own presidential bids. Al Gore lost the Democratic nomination in 1988 and promptly returned to the Senate, later to be coaxed away by Bill Clinton. Jack Kemp gave up a seat in Congress to run for the 1988 Republican nomination. He wound up as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Bush administration. Before politics, Kemp played 13 years of professional football with the San Diego Chargers and the Buffalo Bills. But in 1996, Kemp's football career was still a big part of his resume.

JACK KEMP: The media has reported that Bob Dole is going to have a problem perhaps choosing a quarterback for his running mate. Let me just tell you here today, unambiguously, Bob, you're the quarterback and I am your blocker and we're going to go all the way.

JIM LEHRER: However Bob Dole was mistaken if he thought this former football player was the right person to help rough up Bill Clinton.

Jack KempJACK KEMP: I had told Senator Dole that I wasn't an attack dog. When he first picked me for his running mate, I demurred a little bit in that I wasn't, I didn't think, a good attack dog.

JIM LEHRER: And Kemp was given the opportunity to attack Clinton. It happened at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida, October 9, 1996, two days after the first presidential debate.

VICE PRESIDENT GORE: I'd like to start by offering you a deal Jack. If you won't use any football stories, I won't tell any of my warm and humorous stories about chloroflourocarbon abatement.

JACK KEMP: It is a deal. I can't even pronounce it.

JIM LEHRER: You caught some heat after that debate on one thing in particular--


Jim LehrerJIM LEHRER: Because I asked the first question of you, do you remember that question?

JACK KEMP: Yeah, I sure do.

JIM LEHRER: Some supporters of Senator Dole have expressed disappointment over his unwillingness in Hartford Sunday night to draw personal and ethical differences between him and President Clinton. How do you feel about it?

JACK KEMP: Wow, in 90 seconds? I can't clear my throat in 90 seconds.

JACK KEMP: You asked the question that Bob and I had been criticized for not taking on President Clinton and Al Gore on a more personal basis, but then you also said on the ethical questions why didn't you take them on. And all I heard was personal.

JACK KEMP: Jim, Bob Dole and myself do not see Al Gore and Bill Clinton as our enemy. We see them as our opponents… It is beneath Bob Dole to go after anyone personally… Issues will be aired, but they'll be aired with dignity and respect, and, ultimately, leave it to the American people to make up their minds about who should be the leader of this country into the 21st Century.

JACK KEMP: I clearly missed the opportunity to take on the fact that President Clinton had said he was going to have the most ethical administration in the history of America, and he was vulnerable there. I got heavily, heavily criticized for that, and it was probably a weakness on my part.

JIM LEHRER: And Kemp says Vice President Gore didn't help matters with his response.

Vice President GoreVICE PRESIDENT GORE: I would like to thank Jack Kemp for the answer that he just gave. I think we have an opportunity tonight to have a positive debate about this country's future.

JACK KEMP: He played a dirty trick on me, called me a nice guy and that just totally unnerved me and ruined my political career.

JIM LEHRER: In fact, several times during the debate, Gore tried to draw a character distinction between Kemp and the Republican party he represented.

VICE PRESIDENT GORE: I think, Mr. Lehrer, that throughout most of his career, Jack Kemp has been a powerful and needed voice against the kind of coarseness and incivility that you refer to in the question.

JACK KEMP: Well, I thank you, Al. I mean that very, very sincerely…

JIM LEHRER: That dignified tone lasted throughout the evening.

JACK KEMP: My friend Al Gore says it is better than the Reagan years, it isn't... My friend Al Gore will say that is trickle down economics… While Bill Clinton and my friend Al Gore defend the status quo…

JIM LEHRER: Did you go into that debate down there in St. Petersburg determined to win that debate? Did you see it in competitive terms?

Jack KempJACK KEMP: I didn't see it in the sense that it was Kemp versus Gore, as much as I saw it as Bob Dole versus President Clinton. Our view of the world against their view of the world, and so I really wanted to do a good job for Bob, because I respected him. I thought he would make a great leader for our country in the post-Cold War world, and I wanted to win for him more than myself, if you can understand that.

JIM LEHRER: And Jack Kemp did trade shots with Al Gore mostly over economic policy.

VICE PRESIDENT GORE: The plan from Senator Dole and Mr. Kemp is a risky, $550-billion tax scheme that actually raises taxes on nine million of the hardest pressed working families. It would blow a hole in the deficit, cause much deeper cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment and knock our economy off track, raising interest rates, mortgage rates and car payments.

JACK KEMP: Al, get real. Franklin Roosevelt said in 1932 that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. The only thing, Jim, they have to offer is fear: fear of the environment, fear of the climate, fear of Medicare, fear of Newt, fear of Republicans, fear of Bob, and probably fear of cutting tax rates.

JIM LEHRER: The economic debate led to one of the debate's few moments of laughter.

Jack KempJACK KEMP: Dana Crist of Lancaster said the day the tax bill is passed in the Congress, she will open a new factory with 40 or 50 or 60 employees in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He'll call that trickle down. I call it Niagara Falls.

VICE PRESIDENT GORE: The problem with this version of "Niagara Falls" is that Senator Dole and Mr. Kemp would put the American economy in a barrel and send it over the falls. (Laughter)

JIM LEHRER: Did you feel that the election was riding on your performance?

JACK KEMP: No. No, no, no. With all due respect, I don't think vice presidents make that much difference, (a), and (b) looking at it from Bob's standpoint, pretty tough to beat peace and prosperity. It really is.

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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Copyright 2008 MacNeil/Lehrer Productions
MacNeil/Lehrer Productions