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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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John Anderson Interview
September 13, 1999

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Anderson, welcome.

JOHN ANDERSON: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: As an independent candidate in 1980, you participated in one presidential debate. Ronald Reagan the Republican nominee said "Fine, I will debate you." And the incumbent president Carter said, "No way." At the time, how did you read first of all the motives of Reagan for agreeing to debate you?

JOHN ANDERSON: Well, I think that he felt that perhaps it made him look as the person to be admired for being forthright and open, willing to take on all comers and in contrast to that, that Carter was being very defensive, felt beleaguered and was unwilling to expose himself to a three person debate.

JIM LEHRER: And that's how you read Carter's motives...  Why did he not want to debate you? Why did he not want you in the debate?

JOHN ANDERSON: Well, he, I think, feared that it would legitimize my campaign to an even greater extent. We had been at 20 or 25 percent of the polls in the Spring. He had been worried then. He was afraid of that kind of rebound as the result of a debate, and I think it was purely defensive politics that he was playing that made him refuse to get on the stage with both Reagan and... his excuse was, of course, well, they are two Republicans. Obviously, that wasn't true. I was an independent. I had left the Republican party. I had taken diametrically opposed positions to Reagan on national security issues, on the energy problem, on his tax policy. I had adopted the language of his erstwhile opponent, Mr. Bush that it was "voodoo economics," so there couldn't have been two people on the stage that differed more widely than did Ronald Reagan and I. But despite that, he took refuge in the idea, "Well, once a Republican, always a Republican and I am not going to give him the advantage of being up there and getting the notoriety and the attention that the debate will bring."

JIM LEHRER: Was it in fact an advantage to be able to debate even just Reagan by himself?

JOHN ANDERSON: Oh yes. We didn't get the bounce that I had hoped for. I don't think we did too badly in the debate. The liberals said that I won, the conservatives said that Reagan won, because of the positions that we took during that one hour that we were together on the platform. But it was an advantage to me because the campaign had lagged, very frankly. Once the national conventions were held, that took the spotlight off of my campaign when I was still struggling as an independent to get on all 50 state ballots, which ultimately I succeeded in doing. There was some attention paid in the press, but the press had fallen off, the attention was dying down. This was one great opportunity to recharge the campaign.

JIM LEHRER: And you thought when it was over that evening, did you feel that you had done well?

JOHN ANDERSON: Yes. I was very satisfied. And I was very proud of the fact that in the post-debate reporting that when they took a poll among debate coaches, college and high school debate coaches, they felt that if you judged the debating on points, clearly I had the advantage. Now, as I said, I think the conservatives felt that Reagan won and those that took the more liberal positions that I believed in felt that I'd won.

JIM LEHRER: Did you see yourself going in as a good debater?

JOHN ANDERSON: Well, I had been a high school debater, a college debater, I had been a prosecutor and debated other attorneys. I'd had one national television debate in January of 1980 on PBS with all of the nine candidates except Reagan who didn't show up for that debate in Iowa. I had debated in Illinois, my home state, in a very vigorous statewide televised primary debate. No, I felt I had plenty of experience under my belt. I had been in Congress for 20 years. I knew the issues. I debated them there. So, I felt very comfortable in the format of a debate.

JIM LEHRER: When it was over, and I am talking now about that presidential debate with Reagan in 1980, did you feel that anybody who watched that got a good idea about who you were as a person and as a candidate, and what kind of person you would be as President of the United States?

JOHN ANDERSON: Well, the last part of your question, what kind of person I would be as a president of the United States, that is pretty broad. But on the specific question of whether the voters had a better idea of where I was coming from, the ideas that I felt were really important and what I believed in, the ability that that debate gave me to, for example, bring out my energy program. I had advocated a 50 cent a gallon gasoline tax which was pretty heady stuff as far as most people were concerned. But I felt that to really drive home a conservation ethic, this was the way to do it. So, I could contrast with that what I thought were the very pallid measures that Reagan was advocating to try to solve the problem of energy and so on.
So, from the standpoint of drawing a sharp distinction between my views and my candidacy and his candidacy, and I also brought Carter into the debate. Even though he was not on the platform, I certainly took the opportunity, as I recall it, to mention some of the positions that he had taken with which I didn't agree.

JIM LEHRER: So that when it was over, you felt "Hey, yes, that was me. That was John Anderson, that wasn't some candidate who had gotten prepped and all ready just for a one hour debate. That was the real John Anderson."

JOHN ANDERSON: No, I didn't prep. Ronald Reagan, you may recall, actually prepped by having a former staff member of mine who had defected to the Reagan camp, impersonate John Anderson in the give and take of an actual practiced debate...

JIM LEHRER: That was David Stockman, right?

JOHN ANDERSON: Yes, yes, I didn't do that. I had briefing books and I am sure I spent part of the weekend before the actual debate looking at them, but I felt comfortable with the issues by that time in the campaign. I had been a candidate since June 8, 1979 and this was September 21, 1980. I had been living, hour by hour, day by day, with these issues. I didn't see any reason why the debate should be something that was going to throw me for a loss.

JIM LEHRER: Now there was a last debate, a final debate in that presidential year, and you were not a part of it... It was between just Reagan and Carter. Was that a terrible blow to your campaign?

JOHN ANDERSON: It was absolutely devastating. The only thing that I could think of was that on the television set as people across the country watched that debate, it was a two man race. If I had been important, if I had really been other than simply tangential to a whole process, I would have been there. They didn't know about all of the back and forth and the efforts that we had made to get into the debate. They couldn't possibly know the disappointment that that was.
No, it was absolutely crushing. I am convinced that the almost seven percent of the vote that I did get in November then, a week later, after the debate on I think it was the 28th of October, just a week before the election, I am absolutely convinced that I would have gotten more than double the vote that I did get. I would have been over the 15 percent mark, where I had been in early September before the debate with Reagan...

JIM LEHRER: So these debates were extremely important to you, were they not?
JOHN ANDERSON: Oh, yes, yes.

JIM LEHRER: And they are important to everybody who runs for president but particularly an independent candidate?

JOHN ANDERSON: They are to the candidates and more importantly they are to the American people. Because they come in a period of this long, tendentious argumentative process that drags on. They come at a critical moment. The World Series is over. People are focusing on the presidential election. They've heard about these fellows, now they really are going to take the time to sit down for at least an hour or ninety minutes and hear what they have to say. That's why you have 100 million or more people watching. So I think they have become enormously important and I think it ought to be a prerequisite that any candidate who expects to get federal funding ought to be willing to debate.

JIM LEHRER: And that should be a requirement?

JOHN ANDERSON: Should be an absolute requirement...

JIM LEHRER: By law?

JOHN ANDERSON: By law, yes, yes.

JIM LEHRER: How would you do that? How would you structure that?

JOHN ANDERSON: Well, it seems to me that you could simply amend the present law that provides for public financing of the presidential campaigns. We've had that on the books, as you well know, since the '70s. First time it actually was used was '76, but you could simply amend the law and say that a condition for federal funding will be that candidates participate in a series of debates. We have many, many federal programs, everything from highway funding where they withdraw the money or they won't spend it unless states do certain things. I don't think there is any reason why it would be unconstitutional to make that a mandate that a candidate debate.

JIM LEHRER: Well, what about all the nitty-grittys, like the formats, whether independent candidates are allowed in, how many debates there will be. All of that. How should that be handled?

JOHN ANDERSON: Well, I actually wrote a monograph back ten years ago, maybe eleven now...  I think it was published in 1988… and it was called “A Proper Institution”… and it was sponsored by the 20th Century Fund, a well-known, reputable organization.  And, in about 70 or 75 pages, I sketched a program that would actually create a not just a campaign committee, but would create what I called a corporation for national presidential debates. Sort of an analog of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And it would have a national board of say fifteen people who were beyond ambition, they weren't candidates or potential candidates, they could be from any one of a number of nationally recognized reputable citizen organizations, like the League, like Common Cause, like any one of many that I could mention. And that group would actually get together and set the ground rules instead of having the campaign chairs arguing back and forth about the locale and the number of debates. We would actually turn it over on a regular basis to the corporation from national presidential debates and make it a regular part of the electoral process.

JIM LEHRER: And the candidates would be told "this is where you will be at a certain time, this is the format, or if you don't show up, you don't get your federal funding."

JOHN ANDERSON: I think that that sounds like pretty harsh treatment for candidates. But I look at it this way, that the people, the American people would be taking back the campaign process. I don't think the campaign process should be managed by what somebody called “the master mechanics of politics,” the people who are hired for particular expertise and for coaching of one kind or another. I think that makes our campaigns synthetic and less than real. Give the campaigns back to the American people who will express themselves through this national organization that I mentioned.

JIM LEHRER: What do you say to people like former president George Bush and others who say, wait a minute, these debates have become hyped media events. And everybody is looking for a candidate to make a mistake. They are not designed to extract information and to extract things that really matter.

JOHN ANDERSON: I don't agree with that assessment and of course, starting in '92 I think it was, you had the town meeting approach. I believe there is something wrong with the press panel, four people sitting there going through the long difficult process of sifting out who should serve. I think the idea of a single moderator, I think the idea of town meeting approach where people from a pre-selected audience are given the right to ask, spontaneously, questions. That would, I think, pretty well defang the argument that President Bush made that while they are just waiting for a reporter to pounce on his unwary suspect, that Bernie [Shaw] did with that question to Mike Dukakis…

You know, that's a celebrated example cited over and over again, of how someone kind of fell into, I wouldn’t call it a trap, because I don't think it was designed that way, but...
Well, President Ford had a bad moment there on the stage when he agreed to debate Carter and denied that Poland and Eastern Europe was under the sovereignty or under the control of the Soviet Union. And some people think that that might have been one of the leading factors for his defeat. So it can happen, but for heaven's sake, we can't be dissuaded, I think, from using what clearly is the best opportunity we have to let the American people judge these candidates on the basis of their ability to articulate their views, to give out ideas that make sense and are rational. I don't know of a better way of doing it than through presidential debates. Showing the American people that you have the talent, the real talent that is needed to step up to that challenge.

JIM LEHRER: And that talent the American people would see in a debate is the same talent that would be required and needed as president?

JOHN ANDERSON: I believe so. I think it’s very closely related to the kind of leadership that the American people have a right to expect of a president.

JIM LEHRER: Now, I want to go back to a point we discussed a moment ago. Tell me how important being involved in a presidential debate is to an independent or third party candidate?

JOHN ANDERSON: Well, it gives him a legitimacy that makes it possible for him to be a real contender. I don’t know whether we have time to go into how unfortunate I think it was that we had a Supreme Court decision a year or two ago involving a congressional race in Arkansas where a man who had gotten 46% of the vote in a previous primary, in a race for another statewide office, was excluded, and only the Republican and the Democrat were permitted to participate in that debate. And, of course, he lost hands down. When that sort of thing happens, people then believe that truly an independent or third party candidate is totally marginal, he’s just kind of an unwelcome nuisance in the race, so it’s essential I think if we are going to have a healthy, truly competitive political environment that will invite independents and third parties to compete, they’ve got to be included in debates.

JIM LEHRER: But what kind of tests should they be required to pass in order to be in a debate because there are, as you know, many, many people running for president of the United States from rather obscure parties and rather obscure interests. Where would you draw the line, and who should draw it and how would you make the decision?

JOHN ANDERSON: Well, I would give it to the organization that I described, but in the first place, obviously I think the candidate ought to be on enough state ballots so that he would be able,  theoretically, if he won those states, to have the majority that you need in the Electoral College to be elected. I don’t think that because a candidate is on one or two state ballots, for heaven’s sake, that he ought to be invited to sit on the presidential debate stage with those who have a legitimate claim—we are on the ballot, we have done what the law requires to make ourselves accessible to the voters of the country. Beyond that, I don’t think there ought to be a lot of requirements. I don’t believe that polls that are a snapshot for the moment of what people think about standings in a presidential race should be used. I was knocked out of the last debate because I had slipped below 15%. I think that was unfair. I think that almost two decades later. I don’t think we should rely on something as ephemeral as polling—we are too much a poll driven society now, for heaven’s sake. Let’s not carry it to the point where we keep legitimate voices from being heard in a presidential debate.

JIM LEHRER: OK, 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)

Micheal Dukakis (D),
Governor (MA)

Geraldine Ferraro (D),
Former U.S. Rep. (NY)

Gerald Ford (R),
President

Jack Kemp (R),
Former U.S. Rep. (NY)

Walter Mondale (D),
Vice President

Dan Quayle (R),
Vice President

Ronald Reagan (R),
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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MacNeil/Lehrer Productions