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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/Kerry Debates
September 9, 2008

JIM LEHRER: Seventeen months after "Mission Accomplished" was declared the war in Iraq still dominated the news and the 2004 presidential campaign as well. There had been a series of spikes in U.S. troop deaths, 76 is September alone. Total troop casualties surpassed 1,000.  Iraq, according to President Bush, had become the central front in the war on terror.

GEORGE W. BUSH: We must whip the terrorists in Iraq so we don't have to face them here at home. That's exactly what we are seeing.

JIM LEHRER: And opinion polls showed a slight plurality of Americans still supported the president, despite no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq and no connection to the September 11th attacks.

JOHN KERRY: The president's misjudgment, miscalculations, and mismanagement of the war in Iraq all make the war on terror harder to win.

JIM LEHRER: Mass. Senator John Kerry had survived a bruising nominating campaign and was challenging the president primarily on the war issue. A decorated Vietnam veteran, Kerry turned against that war and 30 years later turned against the Iraq war, but only after voting to authorize it.

Kerry saw a debate with the president on national television as the chance to explain himself.

JOHN KERRY: I certainly went in with points that I wanted to make. I knew, I knew with respect to Iraq that it was really important to make people understand my position which people had worked hard to confuse at that point and it is a difficult issue. How did you vote for a resolution but you are a critic of what is happening? It wasn't complicated to me because I had laid out everything that I was supporting in the vote and everything I wasn't in a speech on the floor of the Senate. Obviously, Americans don't hear that so you have to translate that.

JIM LEHRER: Although John Kerry wanted more debates, the candidates settled on three.

JIM LEHRER: Good evening from the University of Miami Convocation Center in Coral Gables, Florida.

JIM LEHRER: I moderated the first debate. It was all about foreign policy, primarily Iraq and terrorism. Each candidate vigorously defended his position and attacked the other's.

JOHN KERRY: This president just -- I don't know if he sees what's really happened on there. But it's getting worse by the day. More soldiers killed in June than before. More in July than June. More in August than July. More in September than in August.

GEORGE W. BUSH: First of all, what my opponent wants you to forget is that he voted to authorize the use of force and now says it's the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place.

I don't see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send our troops? What message does that send to our allies?

JIM LEHRER: Does the Iraq experience make it more likely or less likely that you would take the United States into another preemptive military action?

GEORGE W. BUSH: I would hope I never have to. I understand how hard it is to commit troops. Never wanted to commit troops. When I was running -- when we had the debate in 2000, never dreamt I'd be doing that. But the enemy attacked us, Jim, and I have a solemn duty to protect the American people, to do everything I can to protect us.

JOHN KERRY: Jim, the president just said something extraordinarily revealing and frankly very important in this debate. In answer to your question about Iraq and sending people into Iraq, he just said, "The enemy attacked us."

Saddam Hussein didn't attack us. Osama bin Laden attacked us. Al Qaida attacked us. That's the enemy that attacked us. That's the enemy that was allowed to walk out of those mountains. That's the enemy that is now in 60 countries, with stronger recruits.

GEORGE W. BUSH: First of all, of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us. I know that.

And secondly, to think that another round of resolutions would have caused Saddam Hussein to disarm, disclose, is ludicrous, in my judgment. It just shows a significant difference of opinion.

JIM LEHRER: Do you believe the election of Senator Kerry on November the 2nd would increase the chances of the U.S. being hit by another 9/11-type terrorist attack?

GEORGE W. BUSH: No, I don't believe it's going to happen. I believe I'm going to win, because the American people know I know how to lead. I've shown the American people I know how to lead.

In Iraq, no doubt about it, it's tough. It's hard work. It's incredibly hard. You know why? Because an enemy realizes the stakes. The enemy understands a free Iraq will be a major defeat in their ideology of hatred. That's why they're fighting so vociferously.

JOHN KERRY: I believe in being strong and resolute and determined. And I will hunt down and kill the terrorists, wherever they are.

But we also have to be smart, Jim. And smart means not diverting your attention from the real war on terror in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and taking if off to Iraq where the 9/11 Commission confirms there was no connection to 9/11 itself and Saddam Hussein, and where the reason for going to war was weapons of mass destruction, not the removal of Saddam Hussein.

This president has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment.

JIM LEHRER: The conventional wisdom, the pundits and everyone when it was over said that you won that debate. That you went into that behind in the polls and you drew fairly close when it was all said and done. Was that your impression at the time?

JOHN KERRY: Yes. Because I think I had an opportunity to break down the stereotypes and I also had an opportunity to show the upside of what I was thinking and the downside of what he was thinking.

JIM LEHRER: At the same time George Bush was criticized for being overly expressive during that debate much like Al Gore was in 2000.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I guess I didn't learn any lessons from the first debate in 2000. I thought I did pretty well in the first debate and you're not going to believe that your facial expressions are going to cause people to believe that you didn't do very well.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. President, for the record, I had exactly the same experience. When the first question was asked, I looked at you and you had a facial expression and I decided then that I would never look at anybody except the person who was talking.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah.

JIM LEHRER: And so, when it was over, I also did not know about the facial expressions.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I think I was just being myself. You know, I was probably thinking I cannot believe this guy is saying that. Or -- I wasn't trying to be rude. It was -- believe it or not it was natural.

JIM LEHRER: Were you aware of anything like that at the time?

JOHN KERRY: I certainly was aware of his answers and some of the body language, but you can never tell what is translating into that now plasma screen or box or whatever. But I have learned enough through the years to know that you can think you are doing just great in the hall and it doesn't work, it doesn't translate.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I'm not that good a stage person and so I was -- frankly, I thought someone said to me, you know, don't worry the camera is going to be on the speaker. But that, still, I wasn't trying to needle Sen. Kerry. I wasn't trying to use my facial expressions to try and get him to say something different. It was just a natural reaction to what he was saying.

Look, the interesting thing about presidential debates is that I don't think you ever win them, but you darn sure can lose them.

JIM LEHRER: The second debate was in St. Louis -- a town hall format that George Bush had grown to like.

GEORGE W. BUSH: You know, moving around -- it relaxes the debater, seems like to me.

JIM LEHRER: But the rules of engagement frustrated John Kerry.

JOHN KERRY: I had 90 seconds to talk to America about why I thought what I thought.

JAMES HUBB: Mr. President, how would you rate yourself as an environmentalist? 

JOHN KERRY: My God, we're talking about global climate change, cancer, health, security, energy independence, pollution of our waterways, loss of our fisheries, countless issues and we had 90 seconds to talk about it in the most viewed moment of a presidential race.

JIM LEHRER: And that was a result of the wishes of President Bush and his people?

JOHN KERRY: Their team was very adamant that there would be no questions, there would be very short answers, very short period of time --

JIM LEHRER: No questions between the candidates?

JOHN KERRY: No questions between us.

JIM LEHRER: However that second debate did have its lighter moments.

JOHN KERRY: The president got $84 from a timber company that owns, and he's counted as a small business. Dick Cheney's counted as a small business. That's how they do things. That's just not right.

GEORGE W. BUSH: I own a timber company? That's news to me. Need some wood?

JIM LEHRER: That third debate on domestic policy, gay marriage came up.

BOB SCHIEFFER: I want to ask you a more basic question. Do you believe homosexuality is a choice?

JOHN KERRY: We're all God's children, Bob. And I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was, she's being who she was born as. I think if you talk to anybody, it's not a choice.

JIM LEHRER: When you raised the issue of Mary Cheney being a lesbian, there was some criticism of that. You have any second thoughts about that?

JOHN KERRY: No, none whatsoever. I thought the criticism was contrived and inappropriate. I was trying to show that people can be completely embracing and affectionate of it and totally accepting of it and obviously it is also important because there's such a contradiction in the public position of that administration. So they can do it privately, but they can't do it publicly and they play to different politics and I thought it was important for people to understand that.

JOHN EDWARDS: We live in a country where there are really still two different Americas -- one for all those families who have whatever they need, whenever they want it and then one for everybody else.

JIM LEHRER: John Edwards would have preferred he be the candidate debating George Bush in 2004, but Edwards finished second to John Kerry in most of the early Democratic primary contests and dropped from the presidential race in March. Four months later, Kerry tapped the North Carolina senator to be his running mate, hoping Edwards appeal with blue collar workers would strengthen the ticket.

And so, in 2004, Edwards did debate but it was Dick Cheney on an October night at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

JIM LEHRER: Did you have a strategy, a way you wanted to go in that, from the very beginning?

JOHN EDWARDS: Yeah, I felt that because I had watched the Cheney/Lieberman from 2000 I felt like that had gone too easy for Cheney and I thought he needed to be challenged from the beginning so that there was a real interaction.

JIM LEHRER: What transpired was an experience from what Cheney had enjoyed four years earlier with Joe Lieberman.

DICK CHENEY: I didn't have those same feelings with respect to Sen. Edwards. That was more confrontational.

JOHN EDWARDS: It was tense and confrontational from the beginning until the end. It was exhausting, actually, because of that.

JIM LEHRER: With the NewsHour's Gwen Ifill acting as moderator and referee, the two candidates quarreled extensively over the Iraq war.

DICK CHENEY: What we did in Iraq was exactly the right thing to do. If I had it to recommend all over again, I would recommend exactly the same course of action. The world is far safer today because Saddam Hussein is in jail, his government is no longer in power. And we did exactly the right thing.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Edwards, you have 90 seconds to respond.

JOHN EDWARDS: Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people. I mean, the reality you and George Bush continue to tell people, first, that things are going well in Iraq -- the American people don't need us to explain this to them, they see it on their television every single day.
 
And these connections -- I want the American people to hear this very clearly. Listen carefully to what the vice president is saying, because there is no connection between Saddam Hussein and the attacks of September 11th -- period.

DICK CHENEY: The senator has got his facts wrong. I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11, but there's clearly an established Iraqi track record with terror.

Now, the fact of the matter is, the big difference here, Gwen, is they are not prepared to deal with states that sponsor terror. They've got a very limited view about how to use U.S. military forces to defend America.

It's a consistent pattern over time of always being on the wrong side of defense issues.

JOHN EDWARDS: We also thought it was wrong to have a $20 billion fund out of which $7.5 billion was going to go to a no-bid contract for Halliburton, the vice president's former company. It was wrong then. It's wrong now.

JIM LEHRER: You raised Halliburton very early on and confrontationally. Why?

JOHN EDWARDS: Yes. Because I thought it undermined the vice president's credibility. You know he was continuing to try and claim that he was concerned about ordinary people, concerned about the war and I just thought that the whole issue of Halliburton and his history with Halliburton undermined his credibility.

JOHN EDWARDS: They did business with Libya and Iran, two sworn enemies of the United States. They're now under investigation for having bribed foreign officials during that period of time.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Vice President?

SICK CHENEY: I can respond, Gwen, but it's going to take more than 30 seconds.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that's all you've got.

DICK CHENEY: The reason they keep trying to attack Halliburton is because they want to obscure their own record. And Senator, frankly, you have a record in the Senate that's not very distinguished.

Your hometown newspaper has taken to calling you "Senator Gone." You've got one of the worst attendance records in the United States Senate. Now, in my capacity as vice president, I am the president of Senate, the presiding officer. I'm up in the Senate most Tuesdays when they're in session.

The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight.

JIM LEHRER: Did that upset you? Did that bother you?

JOHN EDWARDS: It was utter nonsense. I mean it was utter nonsense because the president himself had campaigned more than I had. Anybody who is running for president of the United States you could have criticized for exactly the same thing. When he was arguing that he and I hadn't met each other before as part of the "Senator Gone" argument, I knew that was false and that would be obvious in a day or so that was false.

DICK CHENEY: The one moment I remember that I wasn't happy about I guess, if I can put it in those terms, was when he made reference to my daughter.

JIM LEHRER: The reference came during a question about same-sex unions, a question the presidential candidates later would face.

GWEN IFILL: The next question goes to you, Mr. Vice President.

I want to read something you said four years ago at this very setting: "Freedom means freedom for everybody." You said it again recently when you were asked about legalizing same-sex unions. And you used your family's experience as a context for your remarks.

Can you describe then your administration's support for a constitutional ban on same-sex unions?

DICK CHENEY: Gwen, you're right, four years ago in this debate, the subject came up. And I said then and I believe today that freedom does mean freedom for everybody. People ought to be free to choose any arrangement they want. It's really no one else's business.

That's a separate question from the issue of whether or not government should sanction or approve or give some sort of authorization, if you will, to these relationships.

Traditionally, that's been an issue for the states. States have regulated marriage, if you will. That would be my preference.

GWEN IFILL: Senator Edwards, 90 seconds.

JOHN EDWARDS: Let me say first that I think the vice president and his wife love their daughter. I think they love her very much. And you can't have anything but respect for the fact that they're willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her. It's a wonderful thing.

DICK CHENEY: It was the way it came up, related to a family member, to talk about one of my children, that was the wrinkle that I thought was not in the best taste, if I can put it in those terms. I thought it was a bit of a cheap shot.

JIM LEHRER: And you said you were angry.

DICK CHENEY: I was.

JIM LEHRER: And what did you do about your anger? How did you handle it?

DICK CHENEY: Controlled it.

JIM LEHRER: You controlled it?

DICK CHENEY: He made some statement, sort of condescending statement, "I'm sure the Cheney's love their daughter very much" kind of thing.

JIM LEHRER: Condescending and a bit of a cheap shot. How do you feel about that?

JOHN EDWARDS: I think he is just dead wrong. I honestly thought this was something to be admired. I thought the American people would respond really positively to what the vice president had done. I thought it was an example of a difference between the vice president and the president. That was the point I was making, because I agreed with what he had been doing within his family and I didn't agree with what President Bush was doing.

JIM LEHRER: Cheney sat without expression waiting for his turn to speak.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Vice President, you have 90 seconds.

DICK CHENEY: Well, Gwen, let me simply thank the senator for the kind words he said about my family and our daughter. I appreciate that very much.

GWEN IFILL: That's it?

DICK CHENEY: That's it.

DICK CHENEY: I was angry, but tried not to let it show and I think had an impact in the sense that it fed in a few days later to the debate between Kerry and President Bush, when Kerry brought up again the question of my daughter's sexual orientation in a way that I think ultimately hurt them, hurt their cause.

JIM LEHRER: Whether a single debate has ever decided an election is a debate in itself, however it is the only opportunity to evaluate the candidates side by side, to gauge their responses, to watch how they interact.

For the candidates it is one of their last chances to close the deal with voters. And it's all about to play out again in just a few weeks.

I'm Jim Lehrer, thank you.

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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)

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Former U.S. Rep. (NY)

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Jack Kemp (R),
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Walter Mondale (D),
Vice President

Dan Quayle (R),
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President

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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