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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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Gerald Ford Interview
November 11, 1989

JIM LEHRER: Mr. President, welcome.


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Thank you. It's nice to be here and have you with us here in the desert.


JIM LEHRER: Thank you. We want to go through your experiences with the presidential debates, your own experiences, and then get some comments about the whole debate process generally. You had three debates with Jimmy Carter in 1976, and it was your decision to have these debates. You were the incumbent president. Take me through your decision to do this.


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Well, first, all of my political life, I believed that debates between candidates were important. When I first ran for Congress in 1948, I challenged the then-incumbent to a debate. He did not accept, and I think that was a factor in my being successful against the incumbent. In the next 12 congressional races I had, I always wanted to debate my opponent, even though I was the incumbent. I firmly believe that debates are in the public interest. So when we got to 1976, and as you may recall, I was thirty-some points behind in the polls, I decided that in my acceptance speech in Kansas City, I would challenge Governor Carter to a debate, or to more than one debate. I felt it was not only in the public interest to see us meet face to face, but I also thought it was politically beneficial or advantageous to my candidacy. I had to do something to overcome the thirty-some points I was behind. So that's why in my speech accepting the Republican nomination, I challenged Governor Carter to a debate.


JIM LEHRER: Were you comfortable with your abilities as a debater? Did you feel like you were a good debater?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: I certainly would not categorize myself as an outstanding debater. But I felt with my experience in the Congress of 25+ years, plus my experience in the White House, I had enough background, enough factual information on the issues, that I could handle whatever the questions were and would do, on a comparative basis, well against Governor Carter.


JIM LEHRER: How did you prepare for these three debates?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: That was a tough process, Jim. My staff put together two or three volumes of possible questions and suggested responses. I spent several days, if not more, going through the several volumes that they had arranged, and then we would have sort of preparatory debates where members of my staff would ask me questions and I would respond. That kind of preparation was very helpful, very valuable in anticipating what the various panel members would ask during the debates.


JIM LEHRER: Did you look at tapes of past debates like Kennedy-Nixon and anything that Jimmy Carter might have done while he was governor?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Not to any great extent, no. I had seen the Kennedy-Nixon debates, so I was familiar with how those went. But I felt it was more important for me to accumulate the best information I had that I could utilize in responding to the questions. That was more important to me than watching any techniques.


JIM LEHRER: Now, if you can remember back to when- the first debate was in Philadelphia. Did you go into that with a kind of bottom line, political bottom line, that you had to accomplish so-and-so in order to – as you say, you were still behind when that first debate came off. Did you have an immediate goal that you wanted to accomplish there in Philadelphia?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: You may remember the subject for the first debate was domestic policy, including the economic situation in the United States. This, I thought, would be the most difficult debate for me because in 1975 we had the worst recession in forty-some years. When I became president, I had inherited high interest rates, high inflation, so I knew that Governor Carter was going to attack me on our economic policies. I had to be prepared to justify what we did in overcoming the economic recession that I had inherited. That was the bottom line. I had to come out of that debate even. I could not afford to let my opponent win that debate overwhelmingly. So I had some very hard, tough facts and figures that indicated or justified that we had turned the economy around, that we were on the way up, and things were getting better and better. I believe the consensus was we more or less broke even in that first debate.


JIM LEHRER: Well, actually, in looking back just recently and rereading what was said in all of that, the consensus was that you won that debate- depended on who was doing the consensus-ing – but that you had won that debate. During the process of the debate, did you feel like you were winning it? Did you feel like you were doing well?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: I felt good about it. Of course, as you may remember, too, we had that 28-minute…


JIM LEHRER: I want to get to that in a minute.
PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: … break in the debate time.
JIM LEHRER: But you felt you were doing well.


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: I was very comfortable. I thought I had handled the problems that we anticipated, and that at least I had broken even, if not won.


JIM LEHRER: Before it began, here again Philadelphia, before it began were you nervous in a kind of- obviously you would be nervous- you’d have to be nervous, everybody would be nervous-- Did you think to yourself “this could be it, I could blow the whole deal here.” Did you feel like an awful lot was riding on every word that came out of your mouth?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: I felt that this was a critical debate because we were still behind. And to lose that debate probably would have sealed the fate of my candidacy. On the other hand, I felt comfortable because I was convinced our economic policies had been successful, and I was anxious to lay the facts on the line. Now, the experiences that I had had primarily in athletics, where every ball game is a crucial one, and sometimes you're the underdog and you're challenging the prospective national champion, for example. You develop a certain sense of confidence. You know it's going to be tough, but you look forward to the opportunity. I had that experience many times playing football for the University of Michigan, and that was my attitude before that first debate. I felt comfortable with the positions I was going to take, and I was anxious to get into the ballgame.


JIM LEHRER: And used to being in competition; where a lot was riding on it, at least to you?
PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: All right, let's talk about the 28-minute break. What was that like for you?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Well, I don't think either Governor Carter nor myself knew what to do. I can only speak for myself, but we were standing at our respective podiums. I suspect both of us would have liked to sit down and relax while the technicians were fixing the system, but I also think both of us were hesitant to make any gesture that might look like we weren't physically or mentally able to handle a problem like this. That problem has never happened again, and I hope it never does, because that was 28 excruciating minutes. You're on TV nationally, and yet you're not doing anything. So it was uncomfortable and I think unfortunate, but we both survived.


JIM LEHRER: While you were standing there, did you think to yourself: hey, I ought to be doing something. This is crazy, I mean just be standing there like this.


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Oh, yes, no question. We were behind the podiums, I don’t know, 15 feet apart. It was very difficult to know what to do, and we got no advice or help from whoever was running the show. They just kept saying, “well, we're going to get it fixed quickly.” Well, it took 28 minutes to get whatever the problem was remedied.


JIM LEHRER: Was it a frustration to you afterwards that the consensus was you won the debate, but all the publicity was about the 28-minute gap?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: No question about that. I felt good about how the debate had gone, but when you get some mechanical problem overriding what the substance was, yes, it was disappointing.


JIM LEHRER: All right, let's go to the second debate, the one in San Francisco, and that one dealt with foreign affairs-
PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: And military--
JIM LEHRER: -- and military, security policy, etc., and that one, of course, is remembered for the statement that you made, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration." Why did you say that?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Well, you may have read the little piece I did, the op-ed piece for the Washington Post about a month ago which I was very pleased to write at the request of Meg Greenfield who said to me on the phone, “well, I think you got a bad deal from the press and with all the things that are happening, would you like to write an op-ed piece?” And I said I’d love to. Well, in that piece I go into the details of what happened as the debate moved along. There's no question I did not adequately explain what I was thinking. I felt very strongly, and I, of course, do so today, that regardless of the number of Soviet armored divisions in Poland, the Russians would never dominate the Polish spirit. That's what I should have said. I simply left out the fact that at that time in 1976, the Russians had about 10 to 15 divisions in Poland. Well, of course the presence of those divisions indicates a domination physically of the Poles, but despite that military occupation of Poland by the Soviets, it never in any way ever destroyed the strong, nationalistic spirit of the Polish people. And I felt, and of course, I'm pleased now, the Poles are going to throw the Russians out. And, the quicker they do it, the better. And I'm proud of what they're doing, and, of course, I get a little satisfaction that maybe I was right in 1976.


JIM LEHRER: Let's go back at the time you said that. I'm sure you've replayed this in your mind a million times. I don't have to remind you what happened. You gave that answer, and then there was a follow-up, and you repeated it, so my question is, did you have any idea that you had said something wrong?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Not at the time. Not at the time, because as you may remember, I included Yugoslavia, and Hungary, I believe, and Poland in the initial answer, and I said the Soviet Union does not dominate these countries. They're autonomous, and of course, it related to an earlier comment I had made about the Helsinki Accord, which had established the borderlines of all the Eastern and Western European countries. So at the time, I did not feel that I had made an error. In retrospect, obviously, the inclusion of a sentence or maybe a phrase would have made all the difference in the world.


JIM LEHRER: When did you realize that you had made a mistake, or at least-- or do you honestly believe you made a mistake, now, sitting here now?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Well, I concede that I made a mistake in not adequately explaining what I had in mind. I have never had any doubts, none whatsoever, about the strength of the Polish people to throw the Soviet or the Russian forces out, and to reestablish an independent Poland. I felt after the debate was over that I had overall done well because we had pointed out that Mr. Carter had been calling for significant reductions in military expenditures, which, of course, was not the right policy, and I pointed out his lack of experience in foreign policy and military decision making. So when I finished the debate, I felt very comfortable. But the press focused in on that one exchange, and I happen to think that most of the press distorted the facts, and overly emphasized something that was not the most substantive issue in the whole debate.


JIM LEHRER: Do you happen to remember that just as the debate was over, when you first talked to your aides, your family, or whatever, did anybody say to you, Mr. President you made a mistake, you did bad on this one statement.


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: The first comments by my staff were that we had done very, very well overall. But then when the press, in their own analysis --


JIM LEHRER: Immediately, you mean right after the debate.


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: The press that were making the post-debate analysis focused in on that, and made very adverse comments about my comment. Well, when that press reaction became the dominant one, of course, the whole feeling that I had won the debate overall changed quite dramatically.


JIM LEHRER: How important do you think that was to the outcome of the election?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: It was a factor. As you also know, we ended up losing by only a point and a half, or maybe two points. So any one of a number of problems in the campaign could have made the difference. The second debate might have made a difference. The pardon of President Nixon might have made a difference. The timing of certain economic news that came out in October that indicated we were not doing as well in coming out of the recession. If the news we got in mid-November on the economy had come in mid-October, I think we would have won, because the November economic news was good; the October news just before the election was not very good.


JIM LEHRER: Not good.


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: So any one of a number of three or four problems, difficulties, could have made a difference. We only had to change 6,500 votes in Ohio out of 4 million, and about 20,000, as I recall, in Hawaii and we would have won the election.


JIM LEHRER: When you lost the election, did you ever lie back some night by yourself thinking, if I just had not said that in that debate about Poland and Eastern Europe, it might have come out differently? Did it haunt you?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Not at all. Jim, I have always had the attitude, what's gone past you have to forget, and you have to look down the road and build for the future. Of course, Betty and I hated to lose. We did our best. But once the verdict was there by the voters, we had no remorse. We didn't sit around and moan and groan. We had a new life to lead, and we started planning whatever our future would be.


JIM LEHRER: The third debate, I don't want to ignore it, the third debate was in Williamsburg, but as you—you may disagree with this, but it was considered pretty much a wash. It did not get that much attention because of the first two debates. Would you agree with that?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Yes. I think it was pretty much a standoff between Mr. Carter and myself. By that time, I think the debate luster had dimmed a bit, and it's my judgment, in retrospect, that two presidential debates are adequate in a campaign. By the time we got to the third debate, the public was a little bored with the give and take, so in my opinion it didn't add much, plus or minus, to the outcome.


JIM LEHRER: Taking the three debates total, did you feel like you made a mistake in deciding to debate Jimmy Carter?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Not at all. No. When you're in a ball game, whether it’s on the gridiron or in politics, you can't hit a home run all the time. You have to look at the overall. So even despite the problem in the second debate about my comments on Poland, I felt that I had, in the three debates put together, had come out helpfully to my campaign. And I had no regrets at any time that I had challenged Governor Carter to a series of debates.


JIM LEHRER: Generally about debates, do you feel that debates like the ones you had with Jimmy Carter should be a regular required part of the presidential election process?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Yes, on a limited basis, with some change in the format. As I said a moment ago, in my opinion, two debates are adequate. That gives the public an opportunity to see the two major political party candidates under pressure, under the so-called scope, and television does something from the point of view of the viewer that you don't get in the writing press. So in my judgment, we ought to have two presidential debates, plus one between the vice presidential candidates. That's adequate. On the other hand, I think we ought to change the format. I'm not sure I have the answer on that.


JIM LEHRER: What's wrong with the one that they use now?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: To some extent, it becomes a newsman's press conference, and I'm not sure that's the best way to determine the comparative qualities of the two candidates. Somehow they ought to have- they, the candidates ought to have a head to head confrontation. How you do that and keep it under control, I haven't found the answer. But I would cut back on the press interrogation. Maybe one debate should be with the traditional format we have had, and the second debate a more head-to-head confrontation between the two candidates.


JIM LEHRER: Is there some mechanism that could be devised that would make this a requirement? In other words, if you became the Republican candidate for president, or the Democratic candidate for president, you had to do this?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: I know people have tried to put such a mandate into law. On the other hand, you could get into some constitutional questions. Can the Congress say the Republican and the Democratic candidates must debate? Well, supposing there are one or more other party candidates like there were in 1980, was it?


JIM LEHRER: Sure were.


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: -- where John Anderson was a viable candidate, up until the votes were counted. So any law that just identified Democrat and Republican, excluding any other candidates, that might run into some constitutional problem. On the other hand, if the press and various nonpartisan organizations persist in properly, and I think legitimately, demanding debates, there shouldn't be any trouble about the candidates being willing to participate.


JIM LEHRER: Is there a connection between the ability of a person to debate and his or her ability to function as president of the United States? Is it a good measurement?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Well, you can get various answers on that. The tough decisions that a president has to make in the Oval Office are in no way related to the capability of a person to do well on television. On the other hand, the capability of a person to project favorably on television enhances that person's odds of being elected so he can serve in the Oval Office. So you can't ignore the talents, one, to be very effective on television, and on the other hand, to be very effective as an operating president. They sort of mesh, and I always hoped that we'll get somebody on the Republican side that can do both of them very well.


JIM LEHRER: After your debates-- going back to the very beginning, as running for Congress in Grand Rapids, up to your debates as president, did you feel that the real Gerald Ford was the one who debated? I mean, when people came up to you afterwards and said well, my impression of you is such and such as a result of debate A, B, C or D, was it the real impression, the way you wanted to project yourself?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Basically, yes. I didn't have any feeling that I was a great television communicator, or an outstanding debater. But I did feel that I had certain characteristics that were effective on the television tube. I always wanted to project honesty, straightforwardness, knowledge, and a capability to win friends and influence people. I didn’t have some of the talents— I don’t today—that some of the candidates have had, but I had my own style and I was comfortable with it and the more I projected that, the better I felt about how I was doing.


JIM LEHRER: Did you watch the 1988 debates between Bush and Dukakis?
PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: What was your impression of them?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: I thought George Bush did well. Of course, very few, if any, candidates do as well as President Reagan had done. I was not too impressed with Governor Dukakis. He projected a very mechanical, non-sensitive point of view, and I think the first question in the second debate torpedoed any possible chance he had of winning.


JIM LEHRER: This was the one about his wife, if she had been raped—and the death penalty.


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: It was a tough question, and it required a totally different answer than the one he gave. I think if he could have said, "I would have grabbed that person and given him a solid beating," that would have been a very, very politically effective response. And the way he handled it, I think, doomed his candidacy.


JIM LEHRER: That goes back to the question I asked about yourself; do you think, then, that the 1988 debates accurately reflected the real George Bush and the real Michael Dukakis?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: I believe the debates reflected the real George Bush, and the George Bush we have in the White House today. And I happen to believe that Governor Dukakis' presentation is a reflection of his handling of the various problems that exist up in the state of Massachusetts. And the difference between the two in the two debates made a difference in the election in 1988.


JIM LEHRER: Assuming President Bush runs for a second term, and is the Republican nominee. Based on your experience, would you urge him to debate the Democratic opponent in 1992?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Yes, I would. I believe presidential debates are in the national interest, and two of them are adequate to give the public a full exposure to the candidates. And even though George Bush would be an incumbent president seeking reelection, he should accept or should agree to a debate with the Democrat nominee. Now, he will get some advice that the incumbent shouldn't do it, but I have always believed that whether you're a challenger or an incumbent, you ought to be willing to face your opponent face-to-face, and let the public make its own choice.


JIM LEHRER: Even if you're ahead in the polls by 30 points?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Sure. Probably better to do it.


JIM LEHRER: All right, sir. Finally, is that anything-- you’ve been thinking about this-- is there anything that I have not asked you about the whole debate thing that you would like to say? Anything we have not covered, any of the specific things, or any general things before we stop?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: I don’t believe so. I wish I could give you a better format because I think the format we’ve used isn’t adequate, maybe for one, but not for both debates, if you have two.


JIM LEHRER:   You know, you’ve mentioned the format of just the two candidates standing up there, maybe with a moderator or a referee. That has always been rejected by all the candidates. It’s the candidates who insist on the press thing because it’s more controllable, I guess. You tell me, why is that?


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: I don’t recall ever being asked.


JIM LEHRER: Is that right? You were not asked for a format—


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Now, Dean Burch negotiated with the Carter people for my debates and the format. He could probably give you a better answer on that question. I’m not sure I was ever consulted on the precise details. I did agree, and I urged Dean Burch to have three debates. Somehow, a face to face confrontation, direct answers, questions from the two candidates would stimulate more interest in the public.


JIM LEHRER: No question about that, yeah.


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD:      We get enough press conferences, with all deference to your profession.


JIM LEHRER: Quite all right, sir. Quite all right.  


PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: I think a little face to face battle would enhance public interest.


JIM LEHRER: And the ratings too, no doubt. Yes, sir. (Laughter) Well, thank you very much, Mr. President. I appreciate the time and your candor in talking about all this.

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1988

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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

 

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