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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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Geraldine Ferraro Interview
June 13, 1990


JIM LEHRER: Ms. Ferraro welcome.


JIM LEHRER: We want to go through your experience, your own experience with national debates. And then get some comments, some overall comments on the process and debating generally… Your debate was as candidate for vice president in '84, it was in Philadelphia and it was against George Bush. Do you remember how you prepared for that debate?

GERALDINE FERRARO: Oh, yes. We spent a full week getting ready for the debate, though I spent several weeks ahead of time studying the issues. I'd been given a book at home loaded with responses to potential questions and all separated by category and subject. But we spent a week going over questions and answers trying to hone them down to where they were two-minute responses. And then spent a couple of days at a hotel in New York again practicing and simulating the debate and standing at a lectern again being peppered with the questions from people who were playing moderator, and playing reporter, and playing George Bush.

And then we went into a studio and duplicated the whole thing and again ran through the debate, timing it, and watching my responses. And so it was a long process.

JIM LEHRER: When you finished the process, did you feel like you were ready. Were you really prepared, or were you nervous or what?

GERALDINE FERRARO: Well, for one thing, you get kind of tired repeating the same responses to the same questions and trying to hone them. I have really little patience with that. I don't like to practice ahead of time what I'm going to say. If you ask me a question, don't tell me what the question is in advance, 'cause I'd rather not know. I'd rather give you a spontaneous direct response to it. I also lose interest if I have to go over and over and over again things because it looks to me if you're practicing and it becomes artificial. So I just found the whole process very tedious.

JIM LEHRER: When you actually went on the stage in Philadelphia, did you have an objective, a bottom line of what you wanted to accomplish?

GERALDINE FERRARO: Oh, yeah. And it was, it was not beating George Bush, believe it or not. The bottom line as far as I was concerned was  presenting to the public who Gerry Ferraro was. If you recall in the campaign, I was on television virtually every night of the week. But if you watched what I was on doing, it was 15 seconds of 30 seconds of Gerry Ferraro with a zinger that hit either President Reagan or either Vice President Bush. The sad part of it was that the American public was getting the impression that's all what I was capable of doing. I didn't look very substantive and they didn't know me very well. The polls had indicated that they thought I was feisty, they thought I was tough, they thought I had a sense of humor, but they weren't quite sure if they liked me and they didn't know whether or not that I was substantive.

So my goal going into the debate was to change that image. I wanted to have the opportunity to let people see that I understood the issues, and by the way I had been talking about the issues during the course of the campaign, but that was not what looked good on television at night. So if I was talking about trade at a speech which was very substantive, if someone was picked out of an audience who was trying to take a shot at me with a bow and arrow, they bow and arrow made the news with my lips moving during the course of the speech but, nothing of substance coming out. So my goal during the course of the debate was to be substantive. It wasn't long enough to let people really know in-depth where we stood on the issues but at least to let them know what I was articulate on them. I also wanted to get away from this "Gerry the feisty person" and let them know that I was capable of dealing on a non-emotional level,  that I was capable of dealing directly with the man who was my opponent and could do it as, again, a substantive person. So I was trying to present a picture as well as deal with the issues.

JIM LEHRER: Was there a particular concern about your views on national defense and security issues?

GERALDINE FERRARO: Sure. And to be very honest, I was more concerned about them-- most concerned about them because of the fact of my experience in the Congress was doing committee work that pertained to domestic issues. I served on the budget committee, I wasn't worried about that stuff. I really knew it. But I had made one mistake which I would never repeat as a member of Congress when I was in Washington, and that was that when I was elected I didn't go on trips because I was so afraid of having someone accuse me of taking junkets. And you really do learn a lot about what's going on in different countries by visiting those countries and speaking to the public officials there. So I hadn't had the experience of traveling. I didn't serve on a committee that dealt with foreign policy. And though I spent a good deal of time working the issues as votes came to the floor, it really wasn't where I was most comfortable. So I was nervous about it, and was not looking forward to that part of the debate.

JIM LEHRER: Did you have a strategy designed to show up George Bush in any negative way?

GERALDINE FERRARO: We had prepared, my staff had prepared for me a whole dossier, virtually -- on George Bush, on his votes, on his record, on what he had done over the last number of years in public service. And actually my goal was not to go "Hey, his resume is pretty impressive." It wasn't in any way an attempt to effect or  to hurt him in anyway as it was an attempt by me to show the people who I was. I was dealing it from a positive viewpoint. I was distressed when during the course of the debate I had to turn around with that one-liner about him patronizing me. I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to scold. I didn't want to tell him that he wasn't dealing with me as an equal. I didn't want to have to do that. I wanted just to focus on me and I didn't want to give any sort of a negative impression to anybody who was watching.

JIM LEHRER: Was that line a rehearsed line?

GERALDINE FERRARO: Absolutely not. No. I was forced into it because he was trying to teach me about foreign policy and that was a put down. I readily admit I was not an expert on foreign policy but I was knowledgeable and I didn't need a man who was the Vice President of the United States and my opponent turning around and putting me down.

JIM LEHRER: All right, when it was over-- I mean the second it was over-- how did you think you had done?

GERALDINE FERRARO: I thought I did fine. I had done what I had wanted to do. I mean, how did I do in reference to George Bush? I didn't know, but I knew how I did in reference to what my goal was… The only thing when I saw the tape later, I saw it. I was looking down a lot during the course of the debate and I should've looked up more but I was taking notes. I would've done it-- stylistically I could've done better. But  the minute after the debate, all I knew was that on substantive points, I had made the points that I wanted to make. On projection of image, I had made the image that I wanted to project. So as far as I was concerned, it was a successful event.

JIM LEHRER: And what were you told after you walked off by your folks and by others…?

GERALDINE FERRARO: Everybody was pleased, and George Bush was very nervous immediately following the debate. When we went up on the stage, what happened was I was on stage, my husband and children came up to join him and his wife and his children who were walking up on stage, and he looked a little bit rattled. I think he was looking at more Bush versus Ferraro or Ferraro versus Bush than I was because I was doing it Ferraro versus Ferraro. But I think in his view at that point as to how he'd done, I think he was a little bit uptight because he kind of looked a little rattled. And I think that's part of the whole thing with his responses afterwards it was trying to put the proper spin on the debate. You know I kicked a little-- that night. I think he was trying to put a spin on it because he wasn't quite sure of how he'd done.

I've found out rather recently which I thought was amazing, Ambassador John Grey in Korea told me rather recently that George Bush-- he said - and he had been with him before the debate and had been with him during the course of the four years in the White House before that - and he had said he had never seen him nervous except for that night, he was more nervous than he had ever been at any event that he had ever seen him at. So I said “terrific” -- it made my day.

JIM LEHRER: The consensus as you know afterward that it was it was kind of a tie and that for you was a victory, do you agree?

GERALDINE FERRARO: Well…it was very intimidating, I've gotta tell you. Remember my background was a three-term member of Congress and here I vas facing the Vice President of the United States. Yeah, that's a victory but, again, I wasn't looking at that. I was looking only at how it was Ferraro versus Ferraro.

JIM LEHRER: Did you feel that you weren't an accomplished debater as a result in being in Congress?

GERALDINE FERRARO: No. In fact, about two months before I got the nomination, I had a meeting with Tom Downey and I can’t remember-- Tony Coelho-- had come into the office and were talking about something else--

JIM LEHRER: Two Democratic members of the House.

GERALDINE FERRARO: And we got into a discussion about the possibility - because as you recall everyone was talking about the possibility of a woman vice president - and they said "Gerry, how do you think you’d do (at this)?" and I said the only thing that would scare me in a campaign or running the country is that debate that you'd have to do during the campaign. You saw us all saying we want three debates, we'll have five debates, good God I didn't want three or five, but I would've done whatever they wanted. I am not an accomplished debater. I was a trial lawyer when I was elected to Congress. I do extremely well under that type of situation. I did extremely well when I was working. I enjoyed debate on the floor but it's not really debate in the same way. Most times you have your prepared remarks but in addition to that you're talking to your colleagues -- it's very relaxed. This, I mean, was a totally different thing. It was on issues that ran the gamut. It was with a bunch of reporters - and you never can tell what their agenda is as they proceed to show themselves on national television. I mean we're all human and its big audiences who are watching this debate.

And it was a whole different set of circumstances. I, at that debate, I was trying to get Gerry versus Gerry image across but, in addition to that, the responsibility that I had at that point, Jim, was I think rather unique. It was more than the fact that I was the vice presidential candidate on a ticket that was challenging an incumbent president and vice president, but here I was as the first woman and you know I was standing in for millions of women in this country. If I messed up, I was messing it up for them. And it was the responsibility for was very, very sharp.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that it was an accurate reflection of who you were and what you what your abilities were?

GERALDINE FERRARO: No. No, I don't think, I just, it was the best we could do because there was no other way to get who we were across. But is it accurate? No. If you take a look at the debate you can practice lines, you can be prepared for a response. … President Reagan's one-liners were terrific. And people got carried away, oh, look how sharp he is. I don't think that was a natural reflection of the man himself. They were practiced lines I could've done the same thing. Mine was not, but I could have.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that debates like these should be a required part the process of the presidential, vice presidential process?

GERALDINE FERRARO: I think debates should be, I don't know debates like these should be. I think that, like the ideas of debates, I think there should be more of them because it focuses people's attention on the issues.. At no other time is that done. It forces the press to put the whole thing before the public instead of picking out what they choose for their news shows. But I don't like the format, it's too rehearsed. It doesn't test your ability to think, it just tests your ability to repeat answers. It doesn't test your ability to deal with confrontation. Its too programmed and I would like to see perhaps two people even just discussing the issues between themselves debating between themselves... with no limit on -- reasonable limits, 3 minutes, 5 minutes, to a fair point. But not the 2 minutes, bells ring, lights go. I think it's a very poor format.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think candidates, whatever the format is worked out, should be required to participate in these?


JIM LEHRER: How would you do that?

GERALDINE FERRARO: Well, I've done a little thinking about this. My feeling is that if candidates won't debate, then perhaps … the challenger, who usually is the one who is attempting to get the debates and the person who is the incumbent usually turns around and says forget it; I don't want to give you equal status with me by raising you to my level and debating with you. Plus the challenger is usually less known than the incumbent. But it seems to me that if the incumbent is not willing to debate then the challenger should be given some sort of free TV time to present his or her case to the public.

JIM LEHRER: Some have suggested that matching funds  be tied to this requirement.

GERALDINE FERRARO: Not a bad idea. I really think the American public should get to see debates. I don't know if they'll watch them, but I think they should be made available to them. And, I just think there should be more of them, but again, the format I think has to go.

JIM LEHRER: Did you watch the 1988 Bush/Dukakis debates? What did you think of them?

GERALDINE FERRARO: I think they were also the same type of very stilted format. And its interesting, if you were to say to me what you remember most in the debate, I don't remember a thing that George Bush talked about. And I don't remember very much of what Dukakis talked about. But I do remember the reporters' questions, like Kitty Dukakis.  That’s the only thing. That's not the purpose of the debate, for me to remember who the CNN reporter was. The purpose of the debate is for me to find where the two candidates are on the issues, and I think the format is bad. But I do think it’s necessary to have debates.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that, say using the Bush/Dukakis example, that they affected the outcome of the election, were they that important?

GERALDINE FERRARO: I think Dukakis's response on, "If your wife were raped would you support…", I think it cemented the view of the people on the type of person Dukakis was. See that's a goal that I think it's very good in the debate - to find out who the person is. That was done I think in my debate with George Bush, to find out more about me. It was done I think inadvertently in the Dukakis debate by that question. But I think that it affected the outcome only to the degree that it cemented people's views.

JIM LEHRER: How about your debate and the two debates that Walter Mondale had with Ronald Reagan in '84. Do you think that they together affected the outcome of the election?

GERALDINE FERRARO: I think if Reagan had done as poorly in the second debate as he did in the first, if he had not been as rehearsed as he was… if he had come off as he was in the first debate, Fritz Mondale would have been President of the United States. I really do. That surprise you? I really do because I think what happened in the course of the first debate was people were for the first time put on notice that President Reagan really was having difficulty focusing his attention on issues. I think they were very, very worried that he wasn't capable intellectually or mentally to do the job, that he was just getting old. When he came into the second debate I think the Republicans were fully aware of that. I think everybody was aware of it. I think that when he came into the second debate he had been so programmed and he had it so practiced that even the one liner about “my opponent’s youth” was so prepared that it kind of stopped people short and said oh he's all right. And I think they wanted to believe that. And I think that if they were successful and allowing that to happen in the second debate. But I think if he had, if he had rambled, if he had been unable to focus as he was in the first debate. I think people would have turned around and said we can't do it. We can not re-elect him.

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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

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Copyright 2008 MacNeil/Lehrer Productions
MacNeil/Lehrer Productions