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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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A Look Back at Debating Our Destiny
September 9, 2008

JIM LEHRER: Hello, I am Jim Lehrer. On Friday evening, September 26, John McCain and Barack Obama will meet on a stage in Oxford, Miss. and they will do something that has almost become required of presidential candidates. Something John Kennedy and Richard Nixon first did 48 years ago. They'll debate.

In fact, the candidates have debated at least once every presidential election year since 1976. And they've done it standing, sitting and walking around. But no matter the format, the debates have become the most anticipated moments of the presidential campaign.

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 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. I mean they 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: 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 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 you're 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.

JIM LEHRER: That was a segment from Debating Our Destiny, which was our first look at the history of presidential and vice presidential debates which aired in 2000. Tonight, the highlights from that program and from 2000 and 2004 debates. In preparation I interviewed nearly every candidate who has taken part in the debates and I interviewed only the candidates.

1976: Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter

PRESIDENT FORD: There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.

JIM LEHRER: Why did you say that?

PRESIDENT FORD: There is no question I did not adequately explain what I was thinking. I felt very strongly that regardless of the number of Soviet armored divisions in Poland, the Russians would never dominate the Polish spirit. That's what I should have said. I simply left out the fact that, at that time in 1976, the Russians had about 10 to 15 divisions in Poland.

PRESIDENT CARTER: This was a very serious mistake that he made, and I don't know if the election turned on it.

JIM LEHRER: I was going to ask you that. Do you think it did?

PRESIDENT CARTER: I don't know if it did or not, because there are so many factors that can enter a campaign, but certainly it cost him some votes, and as you know, the election was quite close.

1980: Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan

JIM LEHRER: One of them is your line, "There you go again." It came up in a discussion about Medicare, and whether you had favored it or not, early on.


PRESIDENT CARTER: Governor Reagan, as a matter of fact, began his political career campaigning around this nation against Medicare.

PRESIDENT REAGAN: I wasn't against the Medicare bill that finally came along, but some of the people that were proposing this, it was obvious that they, in reality, wanted socialized medicine.

PRESIDENT CARTER: Governor Reagan again, typically, is against such a proposal.

MODERATOR: Governor?

GOVERNOR REAGAN: There you go again. When I opposed Medicare, there was another piece of legislation meeting the same problem before the Congress. I happened to favor the other piece of legislation and thought that it would be better for the senior citizens and provide better care than the one that was finally passed.

PRESIDENT CARTER: Well, I'm sure that was a well rehearsed line that President Reagan had prepared carefully; the style of delivery when he would bring it in, and it was an inevitable statement that he would make.

JIM LEHRER: Was "there you go again" a line that just came to you spontaneously, or was it something that you had worked on?

PRESIDENT REAGAN: No, it just seemed to be the thing to say in what he was saying up there, because it was to me it felt kind of repetitious, something we had heard before.

1984: Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale

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 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 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?


1988 Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates

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.

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 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: 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.

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 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.

SENATOR 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 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.

1996: Bill Clinton and Bob Dole

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 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.

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


SENATOR DOLE: 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 --

SENATOR 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: 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?

SENATOR 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 you may hit a home run somewhere, but it doesn't happen in debates...

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.

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.

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 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.

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

Debating Our Destiny is brought to you, in part, by: Chevron

Copyright 2008 MacNeil/Lehrer Productions
MacNeil/Lehrer Productions