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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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Bob Dole Interview
November 10, 1999

JIM LEHRER: Senator, welcome. You participated in one vice presidential debate and two presidential debates. Do you believe any of those debates seriously affected the outcome of the elections?

SEN. BOB DOLE: I don't think so, though I think looking back on the vice presidential debate, when I indicated “Democratic wars,” I think that hurt us for at least a couple of weeks, and probably should have said something else. But I was just going through the briefing books, and talking about all the wars started by Democratic presidents--  wasn't a very good choice of words.
Beyond that I don't know. I mean, you take, you know, the polls come out--  who won the debate, who did this, which doesn't tell you much. But probably not a great shift.

JIM LEHRER: Let's talk about that Houston thing. How did that happen? How did you happen to say Democratic wars? Is this something you went in there --

SEN. BOB DOLE: It was boiler plate. I mean, in those days, you know, ... I had a stack of briefing books about two feet high, which I think is the greatest thing about the debates is preparation because you have a chance to review everything and it really keeps you going in on the campaign. But, you know, that was in the briefing book, which I received from the Ford people, the national committee, and I guess I should have exercised my own judgment. But I think that haunted us for a while, because people were calling me that night saying “boy, what a great job, you won this debate.” People I hadn't heard from like Mel Laird, who later became Defense Secretary, and the next morning after the press picked this out as a mistake, it suddenly changed. But, in any event, I probably wish I hadn’t said it.

JIM LEHRER: You do wish you hadn't said it?

SEN. BOB DOLE: Yeah. One of my heroes was FDR and I'm a World War II veteran, so it wasn’t my view to run around and say well, the Democrats started all the wars in the world.

JIM LEHRER: When you said it that night, or after the debate was over that evening, were you aware that you had done something that people weren't going to like? Were you expecting the negative reaction, let’s put it that way, when you finished?

SEN. BOB DOLE: Not really. I mean, my role in that campaign was to go out and try to go to the edge, you know, keep pushing the Mondale-Carter group, and I guess some referred to me as a hatchet man, but maybe that was correct. Ford had sort of the Rose Garden strategy and I was out in the briar patch. I used to tell him, you know, please call me home. So we didn't say we ought to get in this phrase about democratic wars. It was just part of the briefing material I had. And you go back to Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and whatever, so --

JIM LEHRER: Not only this statement about Democratic wars, but there was a general critique of you after that debate, that you came over as mean and nasty, and even Mondale has said that recently in retrospect, even though he thinks-- he said the two of you went in there as friends, you know, and came out as friends, but that he thought also that, just looking at it coldly, that you came over as a little bit too mean, a little bit too nasty. Do you agree with that?

SEN. BOB DOLE: I went back and reviewed –you know, Elizabeth was concerned about it, so we wrote to where is it, Vanderbilt, where they deep all these…

JIM LEHRER:  Hmm

SEN. BOB DOLE: ... and so we reviewed that tape and I thought I was pretty relaxed and pretty calm. And, I cracked some jokes about George Meany, you know, things I can’t even remember what they were now—about the close ties [of] labor and the Democrats— that was the purpose of it. But I didn't conclude, now maybe I'm being defensive, that I'd gone too far because I was -- my assignment was to go pretty far, you know. Maybe I went too far because Mondale and I, you know, were friends then, and have been friends since. When he was named ambassador, I went up there, stood there with him, and said what a great guy he was.

JIM LEHRER: So after you reviewed the tape, did you still feel that hey, you didn't go over a line.

SEN. BOB DOLE: No, I didn't think so. Now, of course, that's me looking at it. That's fairly subjective. But you try to be-- this was after the election, too, of course, and we lost in a very close election, but I didn't think so, but I must say it made me more cautious in future debates.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let's go to the '96 debates. You were more cautious. In what way were you more cautious?

SEN. BOB DOLE: Well, I think I learned a lesson from that to be very careful what you say, and really understand you really have to work on your briefing material and what you want to say, and have it pretty well organized. And the thing that strikes me in the presidential debates were the lack of foreign policy questions, as you well know. I think we had what, one or two?

JIM LEHRER: Right.

SEN. BOB DOLE: And I know foreign policy is not a big, big issue generally with voters, but it's important. I mean, it's important for people even to understand that the candidates understand foreign policy, not a pop quiz, but, you know, understand what's going on in the world. That was the one thing.
But again, I think the preparation was very helpful to me. I mean, I sort of socked myself in in Florida for two or three days before each debate and just spent lots of hours going over the briefing material, sort of having this [unintelligible] board, you know, of people asking questions, and Fred Thompson was portraying President Clinton. Senator Fred Thompson from Tennessee did a good job, but I don't think it changed anything. My view was that, and again, you know, there was how far should we go, you know, there was even then should we get into the character thing, and I decided not to do that, even though I was being pushed by some. I said 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 toward the end of the debate-- whether or not there was anything of a personal nature about President Clinton that was relevant and you said no.
SEN. BOB DOLE: Yeah.
JIM LEHRER: You have no regrets about having done that?

SEN. BOB DOLE: No, in the last few days of the campaign I talked about "Where is the outrage?" because this was after the Buddhist temple, and there were stories coming about campaign finance, and we had been-- first we had to put up with Forbes, who had a big bank account, and Clinton didn't have an opponent, so he had a great -- and you can't fault Clinton for not having the opponents – so he had a lot of money left over and I was broke, and we were pretty well beaten up by the time we got around to the debates, but I concluded that once you cross that line, I mean, you know, then I think the campaign goes downhill, maybe not.

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?

SEN. BOB DOLE: As I understand it, again I don't know-- we did pick up a few points the last ten days of the campaign with this "Where is the outrage, where is the outrage?" We did get people to focus on it. But then we also had our 96 hour marathon where we think people focused maybe a little bit on the campaign. But 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. I don't think I'm mean and nasty, and I didn't want to reinforce that view that some people may have had.

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?

SEN. BOB DOLE: You feel that way, but then you 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. I mean, besides Clinton is very good, obviously good on his feet, as he demonstrated in '92 and again in '96, and they were very-- they were playing it safe. My old friend George Mitchell, I remember him being seated up in the gallery, and he was telling Clinton, you know, don't take Bob Dole on. Just you know --

JIM LEHRER: Didn't he play you in the rehearsals with Clinton?

SEN. BOB DOLE: Yes. Well, he knew me pretty well. Now we're in the same business here, in the same law firm. But he understood pretty much my style based on the fact that we were both leaders in the Senate. We spent a lot of time together. But I think they had the lead. They wanted to sit on it and we couldn't figure out any way, at least I couldn't, how are you going to open it up without getting nasty, mean, personal, whatever. And I didn't want to do that.

JIM LEHRER: When it was over in Hartford, how did you feel you did?
SEN. BOB DOLE: I thought I did pretty well. And again, we went back to our people and said, you know, give us the skinny on this. Did we strike out, hit a single, double, whatever. And I think that the feeling was pretty good.
JIM LEHRER: San Diego, the same?

SEN. BOB DOLE: The same. And 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. President Reagan had been in the seventies, and people were thinking about his illness and all those things. And, of course, Clinton was what 50? -- twenty-some years younger, so another generation. And so I felt it was important to be alert and not run around the stage, but to walk up to the people as we tried to do.

JIM LEHRER: Going into whether it was -- go back to '76 or even '96. Did you feel that you were a good debater? What was your own honest assessment of your debating skills?

SEN. BOB DOLE: I didn't think I was a good debater, but I thought I had enough knowledge. I think I knew enough, and you have to watch that as you're coming out of the Congress because you sound like a legislator. You know, this guy—“Senate Bill number 6400,” who cares, you know. And I see Al Gore doing some of that now, just as an aside. You kind of worry he's going to do the same thing I did. You know, you're running for president. They don't need to know how the watch is made. Just tell them what time it is and the fact that you can tell time.
And I tried to avoid those habits you get into, going back to legislative history and all this stuff. But, so I felt, you know, you're always a little tense. It's like if you're out on the football field and the kickoff is coming, if you don't have a feeling in the pit of your stomach, you're probably not going to play a very good game in any event, and that's why you kind of fear it until you get into it about five minutes, and then you think well, I know as much as he does or whatever.

JIM LEHRER: You are considered one of the funniest, wittiest men in American politics.
SEN. BOB DOLE: (Laughs) That’s right.
JIM LEHRER: But then a lot of people who said that that wit
SEN. BOB DOLE: Didn’t show.
JIM LEHRER: … didn't show in these debates. Why is that?

SEN. BOB DOLE: Well, I always try to, you know, I put a little book called “Great Political Wit,” and I go out and have people jumping up and down, they're laughing, having a good time, and they ask me, you know. I did a VISA commercial where I couldn't get into my hometown without a credit card, and I had hundreds of letters after that, that said if I had known that, I would have voted for you. They didn't see that side of Bob Dole. But it's hard for the media. The media isn’t there to cover some comedian, you know, they’re going to cover all your jokes and then say well, we don't have time for any of the news.
So it's, you do it at little rallies, but it's like dipping the ocean with a teaspoon. You're  never going to see enough people to make a difference. But I've had a lot of people tell me, if you loosen up like that, I didn't vote for you, but I would have voted for you. So I don't know, maybe it's --

JIM LEHRER: But did you make a conscious decision, hey look, these folks are going to vote for a president of the United States, not for a comedian of the United States?

SEN. BOB DOLE: Well, sort of, and I had to watch myself because I am fairly quick, and sometimes there are opportunities out there you want to jump on. I think I kept going back to the '76 debate, you know, don't do it, you know don't do it. It might get a laugh, but that might be short-lived. You never know—you know, people—my view of people--  you’ve got to be very careful with humor and you've got to point it at yourself. I mean, it's got to be self-deprecating or it can be terminal, fatal, if you're out there just slashing away at someone else, and I've sort of learned that over the years, too.

JIM LEHRER: Do you believe debates should be a required part of the presidential election process?
SEN. BOB DOLE: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: How would you do that?

SEN. BOB DOLE: Well, you know, we were lucky, and I’m not here to flatter, we were able to agree on a moderator. That helps. If you can go into a debate thinking I'm going to get a fair shake out of this, and the Democrat or your opponent feels the same way, it makes a big difference. You're not in the back of your mind saying this isn't fair, I've got all these people-- a different philosophy, whatever. How do you do it from that standpoint? And, of course, we had to the big brew-ha about whether Perot was going to be in the debate and, of course, we were painted as the bad guys, and Clinton says come on in, you know. Sure, bring him on in. We're ahead, we don't care. Bring ten people in. And our people decided that wouldn't be a good idea—again, I don’t know in retrospect whether who was right. But that's going to be a question in 2000. What do you do with a Reform Party candidate, whoever it may be? And do you do yourself harm by being the party, or the candidate saying they shouldn't be in the debates.
But having said that, I don't think they make a lot of difference, they could. I mean, someone could hit a home run, or somebody could say something, as President Ford, as you recall, in his debate about Eastern Europe and about Poland. It later turned out he was right, but at that point he was wrong, and it had a big impact. You talk about the impact in '76 because that was clarified after the debate, remember? But he still never recovered fully from it. I don't know what he tells you about it today, but in the long-term he was right. That time he was wrong. Well, he wasn't wrong, he just was a little ahead of his time.
Debates-- I think they make the candidates-- they force us to prepare, they force us to think about issues we maybe hadn't focused on. They force us to think ahead. This vision thing that we talk about, you know? I know Bob Dole has the experience and all these candidates, what does that mean to me? What does that mean about health care, what does it mean about Social Security, what does it mean about agriculture?

JIM LEHRER: Do you think they test skills that are necessary to be president or vice president of the United States?

SEN. BOB DOLE: I think to some extent. The one disadvantage would be if somebody is clearly better suited for television than somebody else, and you get back to Nixon and Kennedy debates. And I remember listening to that debate. I was campaigning. I think I was staying at the Post Rock Motel in Lincoln, Kansas, and I was listening to it on the radio coming into Lincoln, Kansas, and I thought Nixon was doing a great job. Then I saw the TV clips the next morning and the guy, you know, was sick. He didn't look well. Kennedy was young and articulate, and sort of wiped him out. That would be unfair for someone who might have more qualifications but wasn't what do they call it, telegenic? And I'm not certain I'm particularly telegenic. It depends on the lighting and all of these things. But that would be unfair to a candidate who was really qualified, “I don't like the way the guy looks,” you know.

JIM LEHRER: But as a way to get positions out on issues and all of that, do you think it's a legitimate thing?
SEN. BOB DOLE: Right. And I think radio, too. I mean, I wouldn't dismiss radio. What are these, simulcasts where they do…
JIM LEHRER: Yeah, you bet. You bet.

 SEN. BOB DOLE: There are a lot of radio listeners out there, still are, in America and other parts of the United States, and that is sort of--you don't have to-- it's not who looks the best, or who is the tallest, or the fattest, or the shortest, or what kind of necktie they wear that evening. They sort of get a little different view-- not a view, but --

JIM LEHRER: Do you have anything else you'd like to say about the debates I haven't asked you about?

SEN. BOB DOLE: Well, my view is it's an opportunity for a candidate, if he doesn’t get bogged down – or he or she doesn't get bogged down in details to sort of demonstrate to people out there who may be tuned in, or what may be written about it the next day,  that this candidate understands the issues and he understands we need to address A,B,C or D. So regardless of how you may come across with the other-- your opponent, as I said, he is not my enemy, he is my opponent-- you can still do yourself some good with your base. If you want to make a point on abortion or taxes or whatever it may be, you can separate yourself and distinguish yourself from your opponent, and that's important, even though the polls may show, well, your opponent won the debate 55 to 42 or whatever. But you still made your case, and the people in your campaign can follow up. “Did you see what Bob Dole said last night about a, b, c, d? These are our issues, these are Republican independent, conservative Democratic issues.”
So it's a plus from that standpoint and it's free. And in this days of when we ought to have a little campaign reform, this is one opportunity where you can have the same advantage as the president of the United States. Here I was standing there out of office, not the majority leader, a candidate for president of the United States, and I didn't have to pay for it. (Laughs)

 

JIM LEHRER: Thank you, Senator.

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Candidate Interviews

John Anderson (I),
Former U.S. Rep. (IL)

George H.W. Bush (R),
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Jimmy Carter (D),
President

Bill Clinton (D),
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Bob Dole (R),
United States Senator (KS)

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Admiral James Stockdale (I),
1992 Vice Presidential Candidate

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