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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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Jimmy Carter Interview
April 28, 1989

JIM LEHRER: Mr. President, welcome.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Thank you, Jim. Good to be with you.

JIM LEHRER: First, in the 1976 debates, you had three with then-President Ford. It was his decision to debate you. When he made that decision, was that good news from your standpoint?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, it was because, as you know, an incumbent president has a lot of advantage, particularly against a relatively unknown governor from Georgia. So, I had been quite successful in the primary season, but it was a very disturbing concept for me to be on the stage with the President of the United States. I'd never even met a Democratic president in my life, so there was an aura about the presidency that was quite overwhelming, but I saw it as a good opportunity to let the people know that I could indeed deal on an equal basis, hopefully, with an incumbent president on matters relating to domestic affairs and defense and foreign policy. I was very excited about it, but filled with some trepidation.

JIM LEHRER: But you were ahead in the polls at the time.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Yes, but I thought that the concern of the American people was that I had been kind of a flash in the pan. You know, I was able to garner votes within the Democratic party, but didn't have a knowledge, or intelligence, or background enough to deal with substantive issues. So I was looking forward to it.

JIM LEHRER: Were you concerned about this problem of being on the stage with a president of the United States and having to defer to him in some way?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Yes, I was. I didn't know how to handle it. There was an insecure feeling about being placed, at least for that hour and a half, on an equal basis with the president of our nation. And I had done my background work. I was familiar with the issues. I knew from a governor's experience how to deal with domestic programs. I had been in the Navy for 11 years. I knew a little about defense, and I had been an eager student on international affairs. But I would say that it was one of the most difficult challenges that I had ever faced in my life to be appearing before 70 to 100 million people in the same, on the same level, with the president, yes.

JIM LEHRER: How did you feel going in about your own skills as a debater? Had you done a lot of debating as governor or elsewhere?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, I had debated in high school and some in college. At the Naval Academy it's required that you give some after dinner talks, and that you become involved in debates. But that was a very minimal aspect. And in the primary, of course, there were about a dozen of us running against each other, and on many occasions in Iowa and New Hampshire, and then later in the larger states, we had debated each other.
But this format was one that was different, you know, with news -- very competent and knowledgeable news reporters asking questions as incisively as they could. But I didn't have any doubt that I had, through the long, tedious, challenging primary months, learned enough about the sensitive issues: how to deal with the Soviet Union, what to do about human rights, how to handle the abortion question, things of that kind. I wasn't ill at ease about my knowledge of a subject.

JIM LEHRER: Did you go in there with a feeling, though, about I can take this guy? I mean, was it a sense of competition about it that evening for that 90 minutes?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Yes, it was. This was really the first time I had had a direct confrontation with President Ford, and as a matter of fact, although we were hot competitors, I had an admiration for him because I knew the difficult circumstances under which he had become president. So there wasn't any personal animosity or vituperation there. There was one of respect for a very worthy opponent, but still a highly competitive atmosphere, and I think I did go in as though it was an athletic competition, or a very highly charged competitive arrangement.

JIM LEHRER: Did you do any dry runs in preparation for those '76 debates?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Yes, I was thoroughly briefed, and we would emulate the stage setting and have tests just to show how I should react to the presence of the TV cameras, and to try to get my thoughts oriented toward the hundreds of thousands – really tens of millions of people in the TV audience and not just think about the audience that was in the particular theaters where we were. And I can't say that I did it all that well. I was still somewhat ill at ease. I was ill at ease during the debates, but I think the longer that each debate went on, the more I became absorbed in the substance of the issues rather than just afraid that here I am watched by a lot of people, the presidency is at stake.

JIM LEHRER: Was your strategy to show, as you said earlier, that you weren't a flash in the pan, that you were a man of substance, or was it to show that Gerald Ford somehow was not as qualified as you? What was in your mind as your bottom line objective there?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I went in with the full intention just to show that I was indeed of presidential timber and character, not to denigrate or to tear down President Ford. That was my natural inclination, and also among our political advisors, that would have been a very poor political strategy to look as though I was a feisty former governor who was trying to attack the integrity or the competence of an incumbent president. I think it would have been counter-productive. I would have certainly lost the debates if that had happened. So it was mainly to show my own ability, my own knowledge of the issues, my own character.

JIM LEHRER: There were a couple of specifics on those debates; one of them, you apologized to the people for having granted Playboy an interview. Now, did you go into that debate, had you made the decision you were going to say that no matter what the questions were? Or was that something that came to you as you were in the process

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, we were prepared for that question, I'll put it that way, because, as you know, that Playboy interview could have cost me the election. It was a devastating blow to our campaign when this Playboy interview was published. The news reporters and the general public just totally forgot about all the issues, what I stood for, what I might do as president when they became absorbed with the Playboy interview. So I was prepared for the question, and I thought the best way to handle it was to say well, I'm sorry that the interview came out, but I couldn't deny that the answers in Playboy were my own answers. As a matter of fact, the Playboy people had agreed with me and Jody Powell, my press secretary, that they would give us a transcript of the interview and let us approve the transcript before it was published. But when they got the remark about “lust in my heart,” it was too juicy an item for them to submit for possible censorship so they just went ahead and published it and it really took me aback.

JIM LEHRER: Well, your apology was for using that medium, right… for doing the interview with Playboy,,, more than it was what you said?
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, I think “apology” is a little bit…
JIM LEHRER: Well, that’s my word.
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: …it was an expression of regret that I had made a misjudgment.
JIM LEHRER: My point is, you came to say that that night, right?
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: That’s right.
JIM LEHRER: And you were going to say it no matter what.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: The question was inevitable. When you have a media event like that, even a White House press conference in later years, you can anticipate 85-90 percent of the questions that are going to be asked, you know, by watching your program, or by reading the New York Times or Washington Post. You can pretty well say, well, I know these questions are likely to be asked because they are burning issues in the public, and there was no doubt that the Playboy interview was a burning issue as it related to me. We knew that question was going to come.

JIM LEHRER: Now, another major thing was in the San Francisco debate when President Ford said, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration." And there was a follow-up and he kind of repeated it. Did you realize there on the stage that night that President Ford had made a serious mistake?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Yes, I did. And I was prepared to jump in, you know, and take advantage of it. But just on the spur of the moment, I realized that it would serve me better to let the news reporters question President Ford's analysis or his judgment. And so I didn't have to be on the attack because President Ford, for some strange reason, insisted repeatedly then, and for three or four days later, as a matter of fact, that there was no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. And 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 JIMMY CARTER: I don't know if it did or not, because there are so many factors that come into a campaign, but certainly it cost him some votes, and as you know, the election was quite close. It may very well have done so, and I think you might say that had it not been for the Playboy interview, my margin of victory would have been greater, if President Ford hadn't pardoned President Nixon, you know, who knows what would have happened, or if he had chosen, say, Nelson Rockefeller instead of Bob Dole. There are so many ifs. So many ifs.

JIM LEHRER: Another incident from those debates, the 27 minute audio failure in Philadelphia. The two of you stood there.
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I know.
JIM LEHRER: Everyone in America who was watching, you know, was very, couldn't figure out, this was unreal. What was it like standing there?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I watched that tape afterwards and it was embarrassing to me that both President Ford and I stood there almost like robots. We didn't move around, we didn't walk over and shake hands with each other. We just stood there. And it looked very strange, but the fact is that we didn't know at what instant all of the power was going to come back on and the transmissions would be resumed. So it was a matter of nervousness kind of. I guess President Ford felt the same way, and said, well, the program is interrupted, is it for 10 seconds, or is it for 10 minutes? It turned out to be, as you said, 27 minutes.

JIM LEHRER: Were you standing there thinking “hey, I ought to go over and talk to this guy, I ought to do something. I ought to yell, ‘hey what’s going on?"

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I can't remember exactly. But my recollection is that we were always anticipating that at the next moment it was going to be over, and then we were going to be right back on live television, and when the cameras were able to transmit again, how were we going to look. So we were, you know, like you are when you getting ready to start a 100 yard dash and you don't know exactly when the gun is going to be fired, but you get ready, and you don't want to be halfway down the stage when the TV lights come back on. So I don't know who was more ill at ease, me or President Ford.

JIM LEHRER: It looked like a tie,.
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: It was a tie.
JIM LEHRER: … to the audience.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Neither one of us was at ease, there's no doubt about that. Those events, I think, to some degree let the American public size up the candidates, and I don't think either one of us made any points on that deal. But I think there has to be a sense of humor, a sense of relaxed attitude towards the cameras, maybe an element of proper generosity toward your opponent, or take advantage of an opening, a demonstration of knowledge about complicated issues, and, of course, some subtle jabs when the opening occurs with an element of humor in them.

JIM LEHRER: Generally speaking about the '76 debates, how important, taking all three of them, how important do you think they were in your victory?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I don't have any way to know. I think they permitted the American people to make a much more informed decision on election day, and whether I actually gained a lot of points or lost a few it’s hard to say.
I think the general consensus afterwards was that a couple of them were ties and that I may have won the third one, but who knows, it's a totally subjective sort of thing. I would say that although they may not have affected the outcome of the election more than a few percentage points one way or the other, even not that much, they certainly let the American public size us up better, and I think maybe we in general terms came out a tie.

JIM LEHRER: Let's go to 1980. You had one debate with Ronald Reagan. It was in Cleveland about a week before the election. Did you want that debate, or was that forced on you?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I wanted a lot of debates. I wanted three or four debates at least. President Reagan only wanted one debate, and he wanted it as late as possible. And whenever we pursued the subject of the debates, he said, well, we can't have a two-person debate since John Anderson is running as an independent, we've got to have him on as an equal candidate. And obviously, Reagan knew that every time the independent candidate got a vote, it was a vote taken away from me.
So we squabbled back and forth, the assistants did, and finally President Reagan won that preliminary skirmish, and we only had one debate quite late. I would much have preferred to have at least three debates like President Ford and me.

JIM LEHRER: Why did you want so many debates?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Because I thought that I was much more a master of the subject matter. I was much more acquainted with defense, and foreign policy, and domestic issues than he was. Some of his positions on issues were, I thought, unattractive, and my belief was that if we could get down to the substance and get away from the images, that I would come out better. I had watched some tapes of President Reagan on television. I knew that he was a master of the medium, that he was perfectly at ease before the television cameras. I knew that I was not a master of the medium, and I thought that if we'd get past the one hour and go to maybe four, five, six hours on television that substance rather than style would be more prevalent.

JIM LEHRER: But you just had no choice. You were stuck

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, he just wouldn't debate but once, with me alone, and this was a disappointment to us, but it takes two sides to agree before you can have a debate.

JIM LEHRER: Two memorable happenings in that debate. You said, "I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day before I came here to ask her what the most important issue was, she said she thought nuclear weaponry." Was that something you had in your mind to say, or did that come to you there on the podium?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, I had discussed this with my political advisors, not that I would say it, but just the fact that Amy had said it to me, and I was trying to make the point that President Reagan's condemnation of nuclear arms agreements that had been negotiated by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and Nixon and me were fallacious and that we shouldn't deal with the Soviet Union on this kind of thing. He had made a statement that it was okay with us if Iraq had atomic weapons, things of that kind.
It was important to show that not only I, but all Americans were concerned about a nuclear issue, and I chose the accurate description of a conversation I had had with Amy, hoping that it would prove that this was a matter of great concern. Trying to emphasize the fact that my position on both nuclear arms control issues and nonproliferation was superior to his.

JIM LEHRER: You were ridiculed for it and you were criticized for it. Did you expect that? Were you surprised?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I was surprised. But President Reagan and his political advisers turned it around to I think his advantage by saying that I was getting my advice on nuclear power issues or arms control issues from my teenage daughter. And it was used by the Republicans to ridicule me, and I think they probably gained some political points from it.

JIM LEHRER: When you look back on that, do you look upon that as a mistake you made?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Yes, I think so. It was an honest statement that made a point that still is remembered. I got a flood of letters afterwards, you know, “Congratulations.You did the right thing. Your daughter Amy had more judgment about nuclear weaponry than Reagan did,” and so forth. But I think in the contest there just a few days before the election, he came out ahead on that deal.

JIM LEHRER: The other thing that's remembered about that debate is when he said, "There you go again." There was reaction in the hall, I recall. What was your reaction when he said that? It's mentioned all the time, as you know.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I know. 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. I don't even remember the comment that I made that he chose to tag that statement to. But that was a memorable line and I think it showed that he was relaxed and had a sense of humor, and it was kind of a denigrating thing to me. And I think that he benefited from saying that, politically speaking.
When the debate was over, I really felt good about it, and when my staff and I went down into the little holding room before a reception, we were celebrating, you know, the victory of the debate. I think ABC has a quick follow up poll, a call-in telephone poll, and you had to pay 50 cents to make a call in and according to the telephone poll, President Reagan won the debate and the big headlines were “Reagan Wins Debate” as determined by the ABC call-in poll, or whatever it was. We rationalized the outcome by saying that not enough Democrats had 50 cents to spend on the telephone poll, that it was stacked against poor Democrats. But, who knows? The debate was not a victory for me, but I still think that if you analyze the debate or listen to it on the radio, or see a transcript, there's no doubt that I won. But if you look at the television play of it, I think it's accurate for me to say or admit that Reagan won.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Reagan himself said, "The debate with President Carter was, in my view, a critical element in our success in the election."

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, I can't deny that. You have to remember that President Reagan won by less than 51 percent of the votes. It wasn't an overwhelming mandate for him. And I am convinced, and I was then, that a week before the election we were neck and neck. It could have gone either way.
The turning… the major factor in the election had nothing to do with the debate. It was a fact that we went through election day, which was the exact one year anniversary of the hostages being taken in Iran. There was a flurry of activity in the Iranian parliament, that they were going to vote on whether or not to release the hostages just before the votes were cast in this country. The Parliament decided under Homeini's pressure that they would not release the hostages, and this devastating, negative news about hostages swept the country on election day. I've always been convinced that this was a major factor.

JIM LEHRER: And the debate really didn't play that much a part?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I don't think so, no.

JIM LEHRER: Let's talk generally then about presidential debates. Based on your experience and your observations of others, do you think they should be a required part of the presidential election process?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Yes, I do. I may be one of the few that thinks so. It would suit me fine to see the Congress pass a law even that would provide for a series of debates and how they would be sponsored, and approximately when they would be held, so that there wouldn't be this inevitable squabble every four years: are we going to have debates, who is going to sponsor them, when will they be, how many will there be, what format will there be, and things like that. I think it would be very good to set up this sort of thing, maybe with a responsible objective, fair, unbiased kind of sponsorship, and then take all the guesswork out of it, and let the American people know that no matter who their candidates are, say in 1992, that there are going to be three debates. They will be held, say, two, four, and six weeks before election day, and they will be sponsored by maybe national public television or somebody like that. I would like to see that done.

JIM LEHRER: Why? Why are they important?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I think the American people, particularly in 1988, saw a gross, even embarrassing misuse of the media by the candidates with distorted television spots, and emphasis on issues that were not substantive, and there are very few opportunities really for the nominees of the two parties to demonstrate to the American people their capabilities, and to let the news media who might be the interrogators, I presume, bring to the forefront issues that might actually be significant once a president is in office. And I don't know of a different format within which this can be assured or guaranteed. This past year was the worst, I think, certainly in electronic history, with distortions and character attacks and the avoidance of substantive issues. I think the debates would almost insure that that doesn’t happen again.

JIM LEHRER: But there were two presidential debates in 1988. Did you see those two?
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Yes, of course.
JIM LEHRER: What did you think…
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I saw one of them. I was in Africa for the other.
JIM LEHRER: What was your reaction?
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I thought they were beneficial and I would like to see this kind of institutionalized, maybe even by law. 
JIM LEHRER: Do you think there is a connection, then, between debating skill and being president of the United States?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Yes, there is certainly a connection. Because one of the major roles of a president is to communicate ideas, concepts, concerns, dreams, ambitions or facts to the American people. It's about the only way you have to gather support for programs that you think are significant for our country when there are massive opposing forces, say, focused on the Congress. And I think to get the public on your side, or to explain a difficult issue, or to acknowledge a mistake, or to spell out a circumstance is very important. And I think if a president can't communicate well, then in some ways that president is handicapped in doing a good job.

JIM LEHRER: And a debate would expose that to the American people.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I think so, and it also it also makes the candidates realize how important this ability to communicate is. I think it has nothing but beneficial effects.

JIM LEHRER: And, when you use the word debate, you are using the word the way I’m using it, the way everybody does, it’s kind of a joint appearance. You think the candidates ought to be required to speak together on the same platform about the same issues, is that correct?

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Yes, that’s right.

JIM LEHRER: You don't have a particular format in mind.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: No. I think the general format that has been used is acceptable, where the reporters ask one candidate a question and the candidate answers, and then the other candidate has a right to respond, and then maybe a brief second follow-up response from the original candidate, and then reverse the procedure with the other candidate. That kind of thing I think lets them have an adequate opportunity to respond to a substantive question from the news media, and then have a little exchange between the two. I think that's adequate.

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

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

 

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

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