Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Support PBS Shop PBS Search PBS
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.
starmaindividerdebates and campaigns19761980198419881992199620002004dividerbehind the debatesdividerFor Teachersdividerstar
starDebates and Campaigns
George H.W. Bush Interview
April 10, 1999

JIM LEHRER: Mr. President, welcome. You've participated in one vice presidential debate and five presidential debates. Generally, what kind of experience was it for you.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Ugly, I don't like 'em.

JIM LEHRER: Why not?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Well, partially I wasn't too good at 'em. Secondly, there's some of its contrived. Show business. You prompt to get the answers ahead of time. Now this guy, you got Bernie Shaw on the panel and here's what he's probably gonna ask you. You got Leslie Stahl over here and she's known to go for this and that, you go “I want to be sure I remember what Leslie's going to ask and get this answer… no, that answer’s not quite concise enough” There's a certain artificiality to it, lack of spontaneity to it. And, I don't know, I just felt uncomfortable about it. In the big league debates, I mean in the big time debates, I didn't mind kind of debating the other candidates during so-called debates not really debates. But,those big time things, it was tension city, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: And did you, did you feel you were, you said you didn't think you were good at it.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: No, I wasn't particularly good at it.

JIM LEHRER: Why? What was the problem?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Well, I don't know ask those critics that said I wasn't particularly good at it. I thought I did all right. Give you an example. The last debate with Clinton and H. Ross… H. Ross Perot. My kind of handlers, guys that I respect in this business. “God, you did well. That was wonderful.” Heck, I was 40 seconds… before I was back in the dressing room…  I heard Tim Russert declare this was a clear victory for Governor Clinton. And, I don't know, I thought I did reasonably well. But I guess I didn't communicate as well as I'd liked. But that wasn't, you know I mean heck, I remember Ronald Reagan debating and he didn't get all bogged down on things like issues but he was good. Much better than I was.

JIM LEHRER: How did you prepare for those things?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Well, you get a team around you and it’s rather hectic, the concentrated preparation, and they go through the questions that each of the panelists are going to ask.

JIM LEHRER: You rehearsed? I mean you literally went in a room...

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Yeah, they say this what you ought to say, oh yeah, yeah. I'm not sure if we did that for all of them. There were a lot of debates as you mentioned that I was involved in. The tensest was I think… maybe not the most at stake… but the tensest was against Ferraro, Congressman Ferraro.

JIM LEHRER: Why, why was it so tense?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Well, I think there was a lot of -- I think the press was automatically divided. I think a lot of the females in the press corps said this was one of us. You could hear them clapping. The room behind, I couldn't but the spinmeisters --

JIM LEHRER: Press people were...?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Absolutely, the spinmeisters were behind the scene listening as the journalists were clapping and it was, it was, it was a tough one I mean you didn't want to be guilty of, what was the word she used, I’m  having a little difficulty with my memory here-- patronize...

JIM LEHRER: Patronize, don't patronize--

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Don't patronize, don't patronize me. I mean there was this ….

JIM LEHRER: That was the big line of that debate.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I think she was ready. She'd probably been rehearsed for that and I can't even remember what it was and I said let me help you with that or something. And, oh, that brought the crowd to its feet. It’s show business, Jim, it’s not really debating or getting into detail on issues or what your experience has been.
It’s, you know, in the debate down in Richmond with...what’s that nice woman’s name from CBS, that was the… ?

JIM LEHRER: Carole Simpson.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Carole Simpson. What I didn't know… I wrote her a letter after I saw it… this was fair… but what I didn’t know was that beforehand they had rehearsed and identified some of the questioners and there was some guy that was, you know, so clearly going to be antagonistic to me in the way the question was asked, but 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 biz. Now should I have been able to react better and do a better job? I guess probably.

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 GEORGE BUSH: Well I wasn't too conscious of it at all

JIM LEHRER: I know. Well do you remember that?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:  Yeah, oh God, do I remember. I took a huge hit. That's another thing I don't like debates, you look at your watch and they say that he hasn’t any business running for president. He's bored and he's out of this thing, he's not with it and we need change. 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. 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.(Jim laughs) Go ahead and use it. I'm a free spirit now.

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

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

JIM LEHRER: ...of all of these debates...

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Maybe if I said that then I would've done better. But you’re on guard, you don't want to make a mistake. You don't want to say anything that's gonna offend.

JIM LEHRER: Did you ever walk off one of those stages regretting that you hadn't said something just like that or that you hadn't reacted?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: No, because it’s like a ballgame in a way, a certain adrenaline factor. The adrenaline flow. Very much like competitive athletics which I love. Debates, I hate. But the adrenaline factor is the same. So when it’s over, I never left thinking I really screwed this up, I really did a lousy job. I left thinking I could have done better on that answer or something. But I never left really depressed that it was over cause I didn't have one more minute to make my key point on my policy towards Bosnia or something like that.

JIM LEHRER: Of all these debates, do you think any of them played any significant role in the outcome of the election?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I think Ronald Reagan's debate against Jimmy Carter did. Because, I think a lot of people saw that debate, as they saw of these debates, and I think they, I think up to that point many people felt that Ronald Reagan couldn't go head-on-head with a seated President. And he disarmed them with humor and "there you go again", I mean this stuff... And, they asked him, “How can you have George Bush there? He called your plan ‘voodoo economics.’” I think that was one of them. If it wasn’t, it should have been. And he just looked down at me and winked with the cameras on him and had that marvelous, relaxed way of defusing a difficult question. I think that, of the ones that I was around, was probably as critical as any.

JIM LEHRER: What about your own, any of your own? Do you think for instance that you beat Dukakis because of anything having to do with the debates with him?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Well, I think Dukakis got hurt by an answer he gave in the debate out at UCLA in California when Bernie Shaw asked him some question about if your wife was raped I think was the question... And, 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. I really think that, you know, I shouldn't be critical of him, cause I'm sure I make plenty of mistakes. But I think that particular answer stands out as one, at least in my memory, that might have been a so-called defining moment. I don't know whether it changed any polling numbers or anything like that.

JIM LEHRER: Was there any moment for you like that where you felt… Let’s put the positive. Is there a particular moment when you look back on all these debates and say "God, I was really good when I did such and such"?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Well, I thought I was good at some of them, but I might have been the only one. So, no...
JIM LEHRER: Nothing that sticks out...

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Until you came along I'm trying to forget the whole damned experience of those debates, seriously. Cause I think it’s too much show business, and too much prompting, and too much artificiality, and not really debates. I mean, they’re rehearsed appearances.

JIM LEHRER: But what would you say to those who would say, hey, wait a minute, Mr. President, every time you have the two candidates, or in your case three debates, three candidates for president of the United States, on the same stage at the same time under any format talking about the same things, it’s good for the democratic process?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Oh, I’m not going to argue that. I thought you were asking me how I felt. In terms of being objective. Who the heck can say debate, even with that kind [of] structured format… I mean I think it’s probably positive. But, I didn’t like it.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any connection between being a good debater and being President of the United States?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Not really, between being a good debater and a good President, no.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, does it test a skill that the American people need to know?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: No, I can't see the connection, I can't see it. I mean, you can have a good president that might not be the best, in the top of his game, in a staged debate. But maybe you can do it quietly, maybe you can do it without having the hair parted and the make-up just right and the smile at the right time. Maybe you can do it by getting good people around you and giving them credit and trying to do a quiet, decent job for your country. And so I don't see the connection, frankly. Cause there's no reaction under fire that's comparable that I see... You know I vowed when I became President not to talk about the loneliest toughest job in the world and I didn't. But, I don't see the comparison between debate and handling yourself in the so-called loneliest toughest job in the world. I just don’t see it… any more than I see that in a given speech in a political campaign when you are out on the hustings or a big rally or something. I’d say more from the latter because your ability to project what you feel, to communicate, is a very important attribute for rallying people, maybe rallying Congress, behind what you want to do. But I don’t see the parallel on the debate side so much, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think they should be a required part of the process?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: No.

JIM LEHRER: No?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: No, I think you ought to do what's best to get you elected. And if that's best to have no debates, too bad for all you debate-lovers because I really think a candidate should be entitled to that. If there was a guy that stuttered and couldn't say finish a sentence -- I was the guy that they said English was my second language so maybe I'm a little -- No, but if there’s somebody that looks lousy and has a handicap in speaking and yet is brilliant contribution to… as a public servant or academic or whatever. I mean why should that one thing be mandatory-- a place where he's gonna come out less well than the opponent who might be a great big fine deep voice professional debater and absolutely impossible to be president? So why should a person be burdened with that, that decision to have to debate? I mean that's my view: Do what's best to get you elected and try to be a good President. Now part of that is taking your case to the people in various ways. I mean, I don't think you, you know that you shouldn't have some contact with the American people through public performance but put me down as negative...  You detected that?

JIM LEHRER: Trained observer that I am, Mr. President, I figured that out.  But here you sit as one of the most successful politicians in modern U.S. history and yet one of the major vehicles that people use to get elected you despise.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I don't know whether it helped me or hurt me get elected. I'd like someone to show me that it helped me to get elected, then I might change my mind, but I don't think so. I don't think so... I think it’s kind of a politically correct thing. You got to have x-number of debates, you got a commission. We're all going to get together Republicans and Democrats and decree that debates are vital, why?

JIM LEHRER: When you ran against Dukakis, when he ran against you I should say, did you, did you not want to have the conventional wisdom at the time was...

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: … gonna blow him away.

JIM LEHRER: …that you and Jim Baker were not interested in having a debate if you could avoid it, was that correct?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I can't remember. But I think it may have been. Maybe for some of the reasons that I am now unburdening my soul with. Things I never really said before incidentally. But I don't ever remember being particularly into “God, we’ve got to get more debates going here. This is the way I'm gonna propel myself from, you know the Presidency, or you know get to be Vice President again," or whatever it was these numbers of debates I had. I can't ever remember sitting around and saying, "gosh let's hurry up and get these debates going, that'll win it for me." Nope.

JIM LEHRER: True for ’92? You didn’t want to debate then either?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: No, I don't think, I think maybe '92 was because of the 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. I figured he’d be going after me not Clinton. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't, I don't know. So I don't remember much enthusiasm for that.

JIM LEHRER: Play devil's advocate with you for a moment, just on a personal thing, you said it yourself just a moment ago that you’re very competitive and you were an athlete before you went into politics and you wanna a win and the adrenaline, but the adrenaline did not make this a pleasant experience for you.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: No, well, 'cause I would concede I don't think I was really good at debating. I mean I love tennis but I can't wait… I know my serve stinks, but I was a pretty good tennis player.  I think I was pretty good politician. At least I won the presidency, not too many others did that. But I think that debating was not my particular skill. And, I don't see a great, trying to be objective here, I just don't see that it should be a mandatory part of the process. It is and always will be probably now, from now on.

JIM LEHRER: Do think it’s just an inevitability?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I think it’s got locked in. I think it’s kinda locked in. Part of the process.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. President, thank you very much.

 


1st Documentary

1976

1980

1984

1988

1992

1996

2nd Documentary

1st Documentary Recap

2000

2004

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

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

Copyright 2008 MacNeil/Lehrer Productions
MacNeil/Lehrer Productions