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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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Michael Dukakis Interview
October 29, 1999

JIM LEHRER: Governor, welcome.


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Nice to be with you, sir.


JIM LEHRER: You've participated in two presidential debates -- 1988. Do you feel that the outcome of the election was affected at all by those two debates?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: I think, probably, Jim. I thought I did a pretty good job in the first debate, not a very good job in the second debate. And I think, had I done a better job, particularly in that second debate, it might have made some difference. Now, how much, I can't tell you.
You know, it isn't one question, one answer or one anything that makes or breaks a presidential campaign. I mean the fundamental mistake I made in that campaign was to have no strategy for dealing with Bush's attack campaign. And the lesson of '88 is, in a general sense, if the other guy is going to come at you, you better be ready for it, you better have a very clear sense of how you are going to deal with it and that has to be part of your overall campaign as well as what you do at the debate itself. And since I was determined to be positive and I wasn't going to respond, all that kind of stuff, I didn't use the debates very effectively to deal with those attacks. But I didn't use my campaign very effectively to deal with those attacks.


JIM LEHRER: Going into those debates, did you consider yourself a good debater?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Yeah, pretty good. Remember, most of us who run for the presidency have been at the political business a long time. We've been in dozens and dozens and dozens of debates, and as a matter of fact during the primary season, we literally had 45 debates during the course of the nomination and I was at 39 of them. In fact, we were getting very used to each other as candidates before we wrapped it up. So you are pretty comfortable with 'em. Now, look, it's, when you win the nomination and the other guy wins the nomination and it is just the two of you, and one of you is going to be the most important political leader in the world, the stakes are high. So it isn't just like sitting around with six other candidates and discussing issues. But most of us come into those debates having done it a lot. So it is not a new experience, but after all, you are running for the presidency, so it's--


JIM LEHRER: But you had a sense of confidence that you weren't--


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Reasonably so, you know, I think there’s something, particularly in the first debate, that's kind of special about this, after all, this is the presidential debate or one of a limited number of them. So I think you tend to prepare more intensively and you are probably not as casual as you would be otherwise. But it is not a new experience and in that sense, you are pretty comfortable, I think.


JIM LEHRER: You said you thought you did very well…
GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Reasonably well.
JIM LEHRER:  …  in the Winston-Salem debate, the first debate. Why? Why did you feel you did well? What happened?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, I thought I was well prepared and had a pretty good sense of what I wanted to do. I thought Bush was a little bit off his rhythm and struck me as being kind of nervous and not quite as ready for it, if I can say that. And overall I thought it went well.


JIM LEHRER: But there was no particular high point, said “oh, my goodness, I’ve…”?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: No, no. No. And that's part of the problem with these debates, Jim. I mean everybody is looking for high points. And sometimes it is ridiculous. I mean, I remember when George Bush, during the Richmond debate, with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, looked at his watch. Well, I've looked at my watch during debates. Now usually, I take it off and put it in front of me. I mean, the guy looked at his watch because he wanted to know where he was in this 90 minute format. Television must have run that scene of him looking at his watch and suggesting that he was bored, about 150 times. And it was really very unfair to the guy. Why shouldn't he look at his watch? I mean, why? And what is going on here is that people are just analyzing and over analyzing these things to such an extent that it is really getting kind of silly.
But the debates themselves, I think, play an important role in campaigns; they are just one of a lot of things in a campaign that we ought to be thinking about. And one of the things that you've got to be concerned about is that whether or not somebody is a good debater may have nothing to do with whether or not somebody is a good president. So, I think we gotta be pretty careful about how much attention we pay to these things.


JIM LEHRER: Well, let me ask you that. We'll come back to the specifics of the debates in a moment, but do you not see a connection between the ability of somebody to debate and then to go from there and be president of the United States?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Not much. Not much. Now, I speak as somebody who never was president, but was governor of my state for 12 years and at least know something about what it means to be a chief executive. And I can honestly say to you that, as I reflect on my 12 years as governor of my state, I can't think of many occasions where my debating ability had much to do with my competence as a governor. And we ought to think about that a little bit.
I mean, what do we want in a president, anyway? We want a sharp debater or do you want somebody who is thoughtful, reflective, who is cool under fire-- maybe that's a quality that is reflected a little bit in debates-- who surrounds himself or herself with very good people, who can delegate but who can also lead. I mean these are the qualities that generally one looks for in a good political leader, and I am not sure in 60 minutes or in 90 minutes on a stage you see much of that.
Now, I am not saying these are irrelevant. I think they are important, they certainly focus public attention on the candidates and the issues but I think we have to be very careful about putting so much emphasis on these things, when in point of fact, some of the really important qualities that go into making a first-rate president, really have nothing to do with what you do in 60 minutes or 90 minutes on a stage.


JIM LEHRER: Let's go back to the specific. You said the second debate, the one in Los Angeles, you didn't feel as good about. Why?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, everybody talks about the famous question. I'll be perfectly happy to talk about that, but look, I've been campaigning non-stop for about 18 months. Part of the problem, and this may sound funny to anybody who hasn't done it, is that you have been at it so long that I think the public is starting to get bored, and quite frankly, you start getting a little stale. I mean, how many times can you make the same point or speech differently? And that's particularly true if you've gone through a long and very competitive primary process as I did.
And I think by the second debate, I was just, it wasn't that I was physically fatigued, I mean, in that sense, sure you're tired, I mean, it’s a long process, but I think I was just getting a little stale. And I think that happens to other candidates.


JIM LEHRER: Let's talk about the specifics. You were asked if your wife were raped and murdered would you favor the death penalty for her murderer.


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Right, right.


JIM LEHRER: First of all, do you think that was a fair question?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Oh sure, sure. I mean anybody like me, who is opposed to the death penalty is certainly, should be subject to that kind of question. I think it is a perfectly legitimate question.


JIM LEHRER: You were criticized for your answer because you just gave an answer that was unemotional--


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS:  Right, right, right, right, right


JIM LEHRER: Explain what was going through your mind at that moment, what you were doing.


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, if you have been against the death penalty as I have, and this has been an issue in virtually every campaign I've ever run in, you are asked that question, or a variation of it, about a thousand times. And I had been. Unfortunately, I answered it as if I'd been asked it a thousand times.


JIM LEHRER: You answered it as an issue question.


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Yeah, basically, so on and so forth. And I guess what people are looking for in a debate like that-- and remember, many of them have never seen you. I mean, you must have had what, ninety or a hundred million people watching that debate-- is something more than the same answer you've given to that question a thousand times. I think that was the problem. On the other hand, you know, that question did not defeat me. I mean, we all screw up at some point in a campaign. And you know, what really defeated me, in my judgment, was just the fact that I didn't take those attacks seriously. I wasn't ready for them. I didn't have a clear sense of how to deal with them and I think had I done so, that question would have not defeated me.


JIM LEHRER: On that question, when you answered it and when you were standing there on the stage, did you have a feeling afterward, "oh my goodness, I blew it."


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: No. No. And I think that’s probably because it was a question I had been asked so many times. I just viewed it as being one of those questions you are asked if you happen to be against the death penalty.


JIM LEHRER: When the debate was over, did your folks tell you, "Hey, governor, you got a problem with that answer”?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: I don't think they said it that emphatically, but I don't think they were happy with my answer. (Laughs)


JIM LEHRER: Sitting here now, do you wish you had done it differently?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Yeah, I guess so. On the other hand, I've listened and watched myself respond to that, and I have to tell you-- and maybe I'm just still missing it or something-- I didn't think it was that bad, you know. But maybe it was. And again, I think you have to be aware of the fact when you are debating, and you have say a couple of debates, that a huge number of people are watching you, and although you have been answering these kinds of questions all during the campaign, or for that matter all during your political career, for many people, it is the first time they have ever had a chance to look at you. And so, I think you have to be sensitive to that. And obviously, I wasn't.


JIM LEHRER: Reading back what was said about that, both your friends and your enemies said, "well, whatever you think, that was the real Michael Dukakis in answering that question." Is that a fair statement?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, I don't know how fair it is, look, I am a guy who is, anybody who knows me, knows feels very passionate about things. I think I have a reasonably good sense of humor, although I am not sure that came through in the campaign. But then, that's part of the problem with campaigns.
Bob Dole is the funniest, wittiest guy I have ever known. One had no sense of that during the '96 campaign. Don't ask me why. What happens to us, or how you guys cover us or what is it? I don't know. But you know Dole; I know Dole. And this guy is a very funny, witty, smart, interesting guy. I didn't want him to be president, but you know, he is really delightful. One had no sense of that at all during the campaign. Why not? Don’t know.


JIM LEHRER: Well, that question aside, I mean, the total time that you were involved in these two debates, did you believe that the real Michael Dukakis did get a chance-- in other words, did they see you in, at your best?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Not really. That's not because I don't think particularly in the first debate I didn't do a reasonably credible job. It is just not, the format that reveals you as I think, in many cases, you are. Let's take a look at Clinton in '92. Clinton was struggling toward the end of the nominating process. In fact the polls in June showed him third. Now Bill Clinton is at his best in a kind of easy, informal setting where people havin’ at him and he has a conversation. He's terrific. He's genuine. I've known him for a long, long time. He is as good as anybody. And that's the real Bill Clinton. I think frustrated by earlier debate formats, or whatever, he then decided "Should we call and buy time and do a kind of call in show." And to nobody's surprise who knew him, he was terrific.
At that point the network said, "Hey, that's kind of interesting. Maybe we ought to offer the guy an hour." And they offered Bush an hour. Bush didn't take it, Clinton did. And, all of a sudden we began seeing Bill Clinton, and he wasn't just playing the saxophone with shades on. We saw the real Bill Clinton who we hadn't been seeing really in those last several weeks of the nominating process. And all of a sudden you begin to see this guy. Now, he also happens to be a very good debater.
But even then, he was at his best in the Richmond format which I happen to think is the best kind of debate format because you really see candidates-- quite frankly, no reflection on the media, but press panels are a disaster. I mean, if I had it to do all over again, there would be no press panels. Just the two of us out there, or three of us, or whatever is, with an audience and one moderator. And that's the way you really have a sense as to who somebody is. And in both of those settings Clinton not only is very good, but you really do see the real Bill Clinton.


JIM LEHRER: Do you think debates of whatever format, should be a required part of the process?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Yes, I do. On the other hand, I'd like to see the networks in particular do more than just the debates. You’re probably familiar with the proposal that was made at the Barone Center at the Kennedy School for the so-called “Nine Sundays,” in which it was suggested that the networks, in effect, devote 7 to 9 on Sunday evening, each of the nine Sundays between Labor Day and the election day, to the campaign.
Three  to debates-- two between the presidential candidates, one between the vice presidential candidates--  but the other six, to thoughtful, balanced analyses of the candidates and where they stood on major policy issues, presumably with interviews with the candidates, but not in debate format. I thought that was a terrific idea. I mean the idea that millions and millions of Americans just kind of set aside their Sunday evenings from early September to early November, not only to tune in on the debates, but also look at these folks as they discuss real issues, in a perhaps less formal, less structured setting. And I think that would be the best approach of all. I mean, I think you could get millions of Americans to be tuning in and to really have a chance to assess the candidates in a variety of settings. Unfortunately, the networks decided they didn't want to give up two hours on a Sunday evening so, it didn't happen. But I'd love to see that kind of thing. I'd like to see the candidates have more of an opportunity to interact-- as Clinton did, frankly, during '92 especially-- with a little less structure. But should a couple of debates, for example, between the presidential candidates be a part of it? Yeah. I think they are important.


JIM LEHRER: And the best format would be the one you outlined a while ago?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: No question in my mind. I call it the Richmond format, where you have a live audience of people who are not partisans, as a matter of fact, I think there was a genuine effort made during the Richmond debate to get genuinely undecided people. And they sounded like genuinely undecided people. And that does two things, Jim, it seems to me. One is, it is a more natural setting. It’s the kind of setting that many of us are comfortable with, and frankly, I think it is a lot more legitimate in some ways than this kind of structured head-to-head thing, especially with a press panel.
Secondly, as you recall, the audience disciplines the candidates. There was a point during the Richmond debate where Bush took a shot at Clinton, and the next questioner got up and said "Look, we're not interested in that stuff. We want you to answer our questions," which was kind of quick, short , that was the end of it. Very interesting, and I am sure that particular questioner would have done the same thing had Clinton taken a shot at Bush. So, the live audience keeps the candidates on their best behavior, and at the same time, I think, forces them to deal with real issues because they are being asked by real Americans. And you don't get that in the press panel kind of thing that we've had often.


JIM LEHRER: The point that you made earlier about not, in a general way… Do you think that also applied in the debates as well that you didn't respond to them.


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Yes, yes. For example we got into, I don't know whether it was part of the capital punishment debate or whatever, but the Willie Horton thing kind of got into the second debate.  Now the fact of the matter was that the most liberal furlough program in America in 1988 was the furlough program in the Reagan/Bush federal prison system. I don't even think George Bush knew that. They were furloughing people, if you can believe this, for 45 days, not 72 hours, one of the furloughees went out on furlough and murdered a young, pregnant mother in the Southwest. Ronald Reagan had a very liberal furlough program in California, when he was Governor. Two of his fuloughees murdered people and he defended the program. I never said that.


JIM LEHRER: Why didn't you?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, I was going to try to keep it positive. I mean, in retrospect, that's just stupid. I mean, if the guy you are running against is attacking you in what I think was a quite hypocritical way, given what his administration was doing at the same time, you gotta to say that. You gotta say that.


JIM LEHRER: What about the liberal ACLU business?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: Well, look. I'm not a conservative. I'm a liberal Democrat. I like to think I'm a fiscally responsible liberal Democrat but I am a liberal Democrat. I am a member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Maybe I should have turned to him and said, "Well, I'd rather be a member of the ACLU than the National Rifle Association." I didn't say that. And of course he had boasted that he was card carrying member of the NRA. So, you know, maybe these are debating points, but I think if you are going to run for the presidency and the other guy is going to come at you with this stuff, you better be ready for it. It's got to be part of your overall campaign, and if these issues arise during the debate, you've got to be ready for them. You just can't sit there mute and let the other guy define you without your pointing out that either he’s engaging in gross hypocrisy or whatever.


JIM LEHRER: And the fact that you didn't respond, was that a result of lack of preparation or -- ?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: No, no. I had made a decision from the beginning that I wanted this to be a positive campaign and I think during the primary process, I was able to do that. And I think people responded positively to it. You know, there had been a lot of polarization during the Reagan years, left and right and conservative and liberal and all that kind of stuff. And I thought the American people were ready for a positive campaign. I think they were.
But the lesson of '88 is, if the other guy is going to come at you, you can't sit there and kind of blow it off. Now Bill Clinton learned from '88. And as you recall, during the 1992 campaign, the Clinton campaign, and many of his staff people had worked for me and had been veterans of what I didn't do, were ready for this. As a matter of fact, they had a small unit in the Clinton campaign that was referred to as the Defense Department and all they did was deal with the Bush attacks. And people tend to forget this but, Bush went after Clinton every bit as hard as he went after me. But they were ready for it, they had a strategy for dealing with it and it was effective.


JIM LEHRER: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the debates? Anything I haven’t asked you about?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: No, except that I hope we’ll—well, I think they’re important. There’s got to be some balance to these things because, to repeat, the qualities we’re looking for in a president are not reflected exclusively in a debate format. And that’s why I’d love to see a variety of settings where the candidates can speak to us and reflect on important issues and some of those should be debates, but some of them should be free-wheeling one-on-one discussions, interviews not necessarily in debate format, ways that by the time the first Tuesday in November arrives we have a very good sense of what’s happening. And, the less analysis, especially from the press, over who wore what and whether or not somebody’s make-up was or wasn’t appropriate, the better, I think. There’s much too much of this kind of thing. I mean, we’ve just gone through it with the Bradley-Gore thing—hyper-analysis to the nth degree. And I would hope we could have a little less of that, a little more attention to what these folks are saying, whether they’re making sense.


JIM LEHRER: Did you see them as crucial when you went into them?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: They’re certainly very important. I don't think there is anything that is crucial because you have been campaigning for a long time, you've got to have and I didn't unfortunately, a pretty clear sense of how you deal with both your own campaign and attacks from your opponent. But I certainly thought they were important. And I am the guy that kind of likes debates. I do think I spent too much time preparing for the second one. I’d have been a lot better off if I had just kind of spent a little more time thinking and a little less time with rehearsals and that kind of thing.


JIM LEHRER: Did you do a lot of rehearsals?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: I did some rehearsing the first time. The second time,  although I took a stab at it, I just, I was getting, as I say, a little stale, and a little, I'd been at it a long time and I would have been a lot better off if I had just kind of sat around a room with some folks and just kind of discussed things. But, I like debating. I like dealing with the issues and I look forward to these debates.


JIM LEHRER:  So you didn’t go in with some sense of dread.


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS:  No, no, as a matter of fact, I like debates, and I like--  certainly during my gubernatorial campaigns, by and large, I did pretty well in debates. And I like debating. I like exchanging ideas  


JIM LEHRER: Did you have the feeling that when you went in, hey, if I do well on this debate I can win the presidency?


GOV. MICHAEL DUKAKIS: No. No. I mean, I don't think you ever really go in and say "Hey, this is it." I mean, either I do it or I don't do it. If I don't hit it I'm gone, if I hit it I win. I mean, that just, that isn't what makes presidential campaigns. But to repeat, they are important and you better take them seriously.


JIM LEHRER: OK, thanks a lot, appreciate it. Appreciate it very much. Good stuff.

 

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Candidate Interviews

John Anderson (I),
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President

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President

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Admiral James Stockdale (I),
1992 Vice Presidential Candidate

 

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