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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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Bill Clinton Interview
August 11, 2000

JIM LEHRER: All right, Mr. President, 1992. St. Louis. Bush had been way ahead in the polls after the Persian Gulf war, but he was slumping by then -- by the time of that debate in St. Louis -- because of the economy. How did that fit into your strategy?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I believed, even though I was ahead in the polls by then, that it was the product of the fact that we had a relentless focus on the economy and on the social problems of  America - crime, welfare, other issues - and that he was in trouble because people thought that while he was a very good man, who just wasn't involved in what was going on in the domestic economy, in the domestic problems of the country, and because, as you remember, he and Perot had a kind of a bizarre personal fight there from between early June and - to July 1st, more or less – or the middle of July. It had to do with, I think, Perot's daughter's wedding or something - the whole thing I can't remember - but, anyway, it didn't do either one of them any good. So by the convention I was in pretty good shape. Then, Perot gets back in the race, and it was impossible for me to know whether that was going to be good or bad for our campaign. But what my strategy was going in was to first focus on what I thought the election was about, do it in a combative but very respectful way.

JIM LEHRER: Respectful of President Bush?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Yes. Because I did respect him, and I liked him, and I still do. And thirdly, answer the questions, all the questions, because one of the issues I think people had in the back in their mind is, well, this guy's been a governor for over 10 years and so in that sense is experienced but it's a small state. Does he know about foreign policy; can he handle the national issues - you know all those things I thought might be out there in the back of people's minds. I was also the third youngest person to be elected President, so I was relatively young, and I just wanted to try to make sure that people had no questions about my competence when the election - when the debate was over.

JIM LEHRER: You were ahead in the polls, but did you have in the back of your mind the idea, oh, my goodness, I could lose it all here in St. Louis tonight?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Sure. Yeah. I think much more than if, for example, if you're an incumbent president, or if you've been on the national stage for a long time, I think the downside potential of a not very good debate is not as great as if you're the new guy on the block, if you're young, and if you’ve never worked in Washington as an elected official. Then I think if you err, if you make a mistake, it could potentially be much more costly.

JIM LEHRER: President Bush said that he was very much opposed to Perot being in those debates because he felt it would be two against one, both of you would beat up on him. Is that how you saw it too?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Yes, but I also thought he might take votes away from me than away from President Bush. I think in the end - I think the analysis at the end of the election showed that it was about 50/50 - took about the same amount from each of us. But I also felt that Perot would be opportunistic, that is, at some point he would figure out that he should be spending more time - whatever his personal feelings - and there seemed to be very bad personal feelings there between the two of them. But whatever his personal feelings, he would go after the person in first place. And, you know, as it happened, I don't know if you remember this, but at the end of the campaign he spent like $3 million or more the last weekend doing nothing but running savage attacks against me, which were somewhat effective. I think they cost us at least two points, maybe three, in the final margin, just all these barrage of attacks that were nothing but 100 percent negative against me from the Perot campaign. So I didn't know – but my feeling was that Perot had brought an important element into the '92 campaign. And he showed that there was a sense that neither party was fully representing the American people, and I thought it - given the fact that he was above 15 percent in the polls - I just thought it was – you know, there was literally no justification for keeping him out.

JIM LEHRER: President Bush in that first debate in St. Louis went after you on the character issue, relating it to your protests against the war in Vietnam while you were in Europe. Were you prepared for that?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Yes. First, I was very well prepared for all the debates. We spent enormous amounts of time doing three things: First, I would read briefing books; then we would have meetings.

JIM LEHRER: Excuse me, briefing books on the issues, briefing books on personalities and background, what kind of briefing books?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Briefing books on the issues, both the substantive issues, my positions, their positions, and on the kinds of attacks they would likely level against me, both personal and political, and then we would talk about them, you know, in a group, and then we would - we had mock debates, and Bob Barnett played President Bush, the Washington lawyer here you know well, and the late Congressman, Mike Synar, played Ross Perot, and he was unbelievable. Mike Synar, I can still see him there, "You know, we just got to get under the hood and fix it." He was just unbelievable; he sounded like Perot. He had all the same mannerisms. He had studied him. Mike could have been on the stage; he was unbelievable. And they would wear me out, and, you know, after - it was an amazing thing.

JIM LEHRER: How close was reality to the mock?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Pretty close, except the mock debates were tougher. I mean, these guys were, you know, they were beating me up pretty good.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel generally about how you did in those 1992 debates? Do you feel you won all three of them?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I thought I did quite well. I think I was a little nervous in the beginning, but I thought I did real well the first time, and I was a little surprised to see the polls showed that most people thought Perot had done better than I did. I think the polls showed that, you know, by a slight plurality they thought he had done better than I had and then President Bush. I felt great about the second debate, but where the real - you know, it was the real people debate - the debate in Richmond, I think it was. And I felt, boy, I really wanted that, because I'd done a lot of town meetings, and I -

JIM LEHRER: That’s your favorite format, is it not?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Absolutely, because I think presidents should be accountable to citizens, and I think it's very interesting the questions they ask and the way they ask them, and that's no disrespect to you, but if you're in journalism and you work in politics, you - inevitably, there's a little bit of a -- there's a different way you form the questions, maybe even some different questions you would ask. Those folks are out there trying to put lives together and, you know, pay bills, and send their kids to college, and deal with all the things that people deal with. And that's their perspective. So they don't ask you questions, by and large, from a Democratic or Republican point of view. They just - they're people, and it's the flesh and blood of America, so I love those things, and I loved that one. I think I did very well there. And then I did - in the last debate I think I did okay, although I had – in the surveys afterwards said they thought I did well.

JIM LEHRER: That was in East Lansing.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Yes. But I did feel that, you know, I was a little maybe up and down a little bit. I'm not sure I was always on in that last debate.

JIM LEHRER: There's an incident in the Richmond debate where President Bush was caught on camera looking at his watch, and everybody got all over him for that. Did you think that was fair?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I remember I saw it at the time.

JIM LEHRER: You did see it at the time?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I saw him look at his watch. And I - I thought, I felt, when I saw it, that he was - you know - uncomfortable in that setting and wanted it to be over with. And I was a little surprised in the aftermath that so much was made of it. But I think the reason so much was made of it is that the impression was forming that here was a very good man who was very devoted to our country but just didn't really believe that this - all these domestic issues - should be dominating in the way they were. So it was like he was, I think, so the two things - I think if someone had caught me or Ross Perot looking at our watch, if it wasn't - unless it had been a bad moment in the debate - it probably wouldn't have resonated, but I think - now I always thought that President Bush would have been reelected if people had really believed that he had as clear a grasp of the way the economy and the society were changing and what needed to be done as he did of our foreign policy and where we needed to go in the world. I always felt that, because I think people thought he was a good person who loved his country very much, and that's what I thought, I mean. So I think the reason the watch thing hurt so badly is it tended to reinforce the problem he had in the election.

JIM LEHRER: '96 - you're debating Bob Dole - Hartford again. You were ahead in the polls when you went into Hartford. In fact, you were considerably ahead in the polls when you went into Hartford. How did that affect the way you prepared and the strategy you used?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I thought the polls would close, and, you know, Perot got back in but he was in a more limited way, but I also knew Perot would throw a bunch of money against me at the end, which he did, and we had - to the same effect, although a lesser extent. In that debate I thought that I had to be able to press my case against the Republican Congress, because Senator Dole had been the Senate Republican leader and he and Speaker Gingrich had cooperated in the government shutdown and all that, and I thought I had to be relatively aggressive without being hostile, and it was - it was kind of a delicate line for me to walk because, again, I really like Bob Dole. I mean, personally, I've always liked him, and he would perplex and vex me from time to time, and do things that I didn't like very much, but I thought that he was - you know - a good man playing the hand that he was dealt there. And I wanted to be quite aggressive in defending the record of the administration -- and the other thing you have to do when you're running for reelection is to keep the race focused on the future. An incumbent can get in trouble if you talk too much about the past because people feel that they hired you to do a good job, and that what's really relevant is that evidence that you're moving in the right direction, that you're changing in the right way, that you're pointing toward the future. So it was a different sort of debate.

JIM LEHRER: The pundits going into that debate said this was Bob Dole's last chance to really close the polls - he had a reputation because of what happened in '76 for being a hatchet man. The expectation was that he was really going to go after you on personal issues, on the character issue, and he didn't. Were you prepared for him to have done something?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Oh, yes. We prepared just as hard in '96 as in '92, and -
JIM LEHRER: Who played the role?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: George Mitchell. And you know George Mitchell had been the Senate Democratic leader when Dole was the Senate Republican leader. He knew him very well. He'd been in endless debates with him, and, you know, Mitchell is a brilliant man and quite an incisive debater, and we prepared. We went up to Chautauqua, New York to prepare, I remember, and it was - Mitchell was ruthless. I mean, the first time - the first debate we had in the preparation session, he just killed me. You know, I walked in there; he had been preparing for weeks. He'd really done his homework, and I just kind of read the books in a cursory way, and he literally beat my brains out. I mean, it was - it was ruthless. You know, they should have called a TKO before it was over and - so, we practiced and practiced and practiced, and I was - you know - ready to do whatever -

JIM LEHRER: Your opening answer was - you praised Senator Dole and said what a good guy he was – I paraphrase – but stuff like that. Was that a conscious preemptive strike? If you're thinking about it, Senator, let me tell you how nice you are before you do it?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, that was part of it. I was hoping to, you know, take a little of the edge off. But I also - whatever he did, you know, I had made a big point of saying the whole time, going back to the '92 campaign, that I did not approve of a politics of personal destruction. I thought it had done way more harm than good in our country; I couldn't think of a single instance of real good it had done, and that, you know, I wanted to show the American people that I liked and respected Bob Dole, that no one could take anything away from the service he'd rendered to his country or the sacrifice that he'd made. And I also did it because I wanted to make clear that there were still real differences between us and we could fight those differences out but I wasn't going to let it interfere with the respect I was showing him as a person.

JIM LEHRER: Then, the next one was in San Diego. This was in town hall format, but, as I'm sure you recall, Dole had caught some heat from his own fellow Republicans for not going after you directly -
JIM LEHRER: … on these personal issues.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I was surprised [at] the first debate. I thought he would hit me a little harder. So the second debate was in a town hall format, which I like very much, again as you know, but it's a little harder in those debates to go after your opponent unless people serve you up the right question. Otherwise, the picture is of a debater being disrespectful to the citizens.

JIM LEHRER: Did you feel that - one line that I wanted to ask you about in that debate you said,Bob Dole wasn't old but his ideas were old. Was that a prepackaged line that you brought to the debate?
JIM LEHRER: Did you have a lot of those?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I don't remember for sure, but I think so. We did, and you don't use 'em all. But when you - if you practice as hard as we practiced - and you go through these things and you take all this incoming fire and you think about, you know, what can you say that you leave with people because about all you can - you hope to get out of these things, you know, in terms of the voter impact is you hope that their overall impression will be that you're - you have good ideas; you're fully in charge; and you're on their side. And then you hope that they will understand the differences between you and your opponent in the way that you do. And then about the only other thing you can do is maybe if you can leave a memorable line or two in - kind of in the public conscience -like President Reagan said, "There you go again" - that kind of thing. So, you know, you try to, 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 a chance to use them, I did, and if it didn't seem appropriate, I didn't. You just - the one thing you can't do is you can't over script on them. You can't say, well, this is the way I've prepared and these are the answers I'm going to give no matter what the questions are, what the flow of the debate is.
You know, it's sort of like - I tell everybody all the time that from my music background that politics is a lot like jazz. There's a melody that has to be played, and you have to play it in the right key, but you also have to - there comes a time when you have to ad lib, and if you - if you totally ad lib and you play out of key and you forget what the song is, you're in trouble. But if you never vary from the melody line, you won't be very effective either.

JIM LEHRER: As an institution, how important are these presidential debates to the process?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I think they're quite important, because on the whole they are - they give the voters the best chance they can get to take the measure of a person under some fire and to hear people probing their ideas to see the way they think - and the good thing about the press debates - that is, when members of the press are asking the questions - is they get a reasonable chance for the differences on the critical issues to be made clear. When people vote for a president, they vote overwhelmingly for someone that they trust, they like, they think will be a good leader, but their priorities and the differences between them also matter quite a lot unless they're not - they're obscured. So with the - the virtue of the people-to-people encounters is you get a feeling for what people think and how they ask questions, how the president relates to and thinks about ordinary citizens. Sometimes, depending on the questions asked, they don't - even with the rebuttal - you don't get the clarity of difference, and I think clarity of choice is very important, particularly if you have an election like this one where there's a basic - there's sort of an emerging consensus on the political rhetoric - which I don't take any offense at - I'm flattered by - you know, we're all New Democrats now. But I think - I think there are important differences and they should be explored.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that the debates test skills that are required to be President of the United States?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Yes. I think they do. They don't test all the skills. They don't really show, you know, whether you're a good decision maker, although they show whether you can understand a situation in a hurry and respond to it, particularly if there's a surprise question or, you know, a surprise development in the - kind of the chemistry of the players. They don't show whether you're good at putting together a team and, you know, carrying out a plan, but they do give people a feel for what kind of leader the debater would be, how much the person knows, and how they – generally, how they approach the whole idea of being president - I think they do.

JIM LEHRER: We're beginning in this documentary, Mr. President, with the Kennedy-Nixon debates. Do you happen to remember -?
JIM LEHRER: Tell us about it - where you were, was it on TV, radio? Tell us the whole…?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I watched it on TV. I was 14 in 1960, and I watched the debates on television. And, you know, I watched it as a biased figure. I was already a committed Democrat. I was strongly for President Kennedy. I lived in a county that was a Republican county, so Nixon, President Nixon carried our county. In our state, President Kennedy won, but not by very much, I don't think. I knew the Catholic issue was really an issue then with a lot of people in the South – the sort of religious southerners, and I thought it shouldn't be. And I had met - I mean, I hadn't met President Kennedy then - but I had really, you know, been sort of excited - even though, interestingly enough, when they started, I was for Johnson, because he was my neighbor and he was a southerner for civil rights which I always thought was the sort of the first test of a politician. But what I thought was that - I thought what the conventional wisdom turned out to be. I thought Kennedy, who was young - even Nixon was very young too, but Kennedy was younger than Nixon, and he looked younger - I thought he seemed remarkably comfortable and competent. And I thought that the Vice President then, Mr. Nixon, seemed remarkably competent but not comfortable. I had the feeling that the differences between them were not as great as they both made out, although Kennedy would probably be better on civil rights, and mostly because I thought our party would be. But, if you remember, President Nixon in 1960 got 35 percent of the African-American vote, and there was still a big Republican African-American vote with roots in Abraham Lincoln's Republican Party. So it was a different time. Actually the differences between the two candidates and the two parties this year on substantive issues are, I think, considerably greater now than they were then.

JIM LEHRER: Did you have a feeling as a 14-year-old kid watching this debate, already interested in politics, “Oh, my God, this is something special. This is history here?”

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Oh, yeah, I did, and of course it was the first televised debates, so you've got to understand. You know this because we’re, more or less, the same age. I was ten years old, almost,  nine, I think, when we got a television, so in my earliest years, and my earliest memories of politics were on the radio or going to-  You know, we used to go to the movie once a week and you could go,  if you were a kid, you could get in for a nickel or a dime, and there was always, always a newsreel that you saw which showed you films of the previous week's news events that went with your movie. And so television was still a relatively new phenomenon, even though it had been, I guess, available to some as early as the late 1940's. By, in 1960, there were all kinds of Americans, millions and millions of us watching television that hadn't had a television very long. And so I think it's, you know, important when you look at the Kennedy-Nixon debates, you have to see it in the context of television was still a new, new thing, and it was sort of a like a live movie. You know, here were these larger than life figures, you know, going at each other, and it was absolutely fascinating to me.
I will say this: I wasn't conscious then, because I was only 14 and I didn't know anything about it, that – of the difference in the two campaigns and how much better Kennedy had thought about television as a medium, how he should look, how he should be made up, how it was important to come across in a certain way and how it was different from a debate that might be on radio, for example, or might be just to a large hall. But since then, in the aftermath, I have read over the years that, for example, there were surveys taken of people who heard the debate on the radio who thought that Vice President Nixon had won those debates that they heard on the radio. So we were all aware that this was a new thing, you know, TV, a new deal.

JIM LEHRER: OK, before we turn the cameras off, is there anything else you'd like to say about presidential debates I didn't ask you about, something that you -

PRESIDENT CLINTON: One other thing I would like to say about them is they do the candidates a lot of good, independent of what happens in the debate, because they - first of all, you're forced to learn the things that you ought to know anyway about issues that you may not be all that interested in, or you didn't have time to deal with, because you just went through a long primary campaign and all that, so especially for the non-incumbent president, they're extremely valuable in that way. Secondly, they force you to come to terms with what you really believe because if you get in a big fight in a debate, unless you're the world's greatest actor, it's hard to sit there and defend a position in a convincing way that you don't really believe, and people get a sense - even if it's an issue they don't care all that much about - when they look at you, they get a sense about whether you are really convicted about this position you're advancing. So you're forced to learn and you're forced to connect your innermost feelings with what your brain's doing. And I think - thirdly, I think the combat of ideas is good, you know, because too many campaigns can get run where all the combat of ideas is you lob an ad at them, they lob an ad at you, then you go out and you give speeches which you hope will have nothing in offensive that will cost you a vote, and, you know, that's not - in the cauldron of the Congress, in the back and forth between the President and the Congress, you know, these are contests of ideas, as well as political positioning. I mean, there is some substance; there is some meat there. So even if these debates don't change many votes and, you know, normally both sides will do well enough so they can avoid any lasting damage- having to do them and knowing that if you blow it, they will change a lot of votes, forces people who wish to be president to do things that they should do. And I am convinced that the debates that I went through, especially those three in 1992 actually helped me to be a better president.

JIM LEHRER: OK, that’s terrific, that’s terrific. I could talk to you about this all day. You have something else to do though today, right?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Yeah, California, here I come.


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