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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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Jack Kemp Interview
March 8, 1999

JIM LEHRER: Welcome

JACK KEMP: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER:  Your ’96 debate – how did you prepare for that.

JACK KEMP:  (Laughs) Some would say I wasn’t prepared. We went down to Boca Raton with my staff and Senator Judd Gregg from New Hampshire, and he was Al Gore and I played Jack Kemp. We spent about three of four days in Boca Raton preparing, thinking up, dreaming up, questions that we were sure to come from you among others

JIM LEHRER:  Did you look at any tapes of Gore, did you do any study of Gore.

JACK KEMP:  Yes, I watched the Gore-Quayle debate a couple of times. We watched him on some of the talk shows. I had the feeling it was more important that I not spend all my time just on the adversary, but for preparing for what the questions would be, and having put obviously the best light on the Dole-Kemp vision of America for the 21st Century.

JIM LEHRER: How did you feel about your own skills as a debater? I mean, did you go in there thinking hey, I can take this guy because -

JACK KEMP: No, I really didn't.

JIM LEHRER: You didn’t?

JACK KEMP: They were very smart. They played it up that I was this great debater. I wasn't a great debater. I love to talk, as I think some people around this town know, but I - you know, I don't have any formal debating experience. I'm not a lawyer. I've been a professional football quarterback, and I've been a congressman for 18 years, and a HUD secretary, but I had no formal debating - in fact, I’d never been in that type of a debate before. And sitting back on Monday morning watching the films of the previous game, so to speak, to use a metaphor, I think I'd do a little bit differently next time. But -

JIM LEHRER: What would you do? What do you think you did wrong?

JACK KEMP: Well, first of all, I thought the rules were extremely tight - 60 seconds, 30 seconds, and, you know, a few seconds to respond. I would have rather been standing up in front of a crowd the way Bill Clinton, President Clinton and Bob Dole got to do at the very last, I think it was in San Diego. I would have enjoyed that. I would have liked to have engaged the audience a little bit more.

It was a very formal setting, and looking back at it, that's not my style. I'm more of a preacher, an evangelist, a - you know, I'm the Hubert Humphrey of the Republican Party.

JIM LEHRER: When you prepared, when you were at Boca Raton and you were preparing, were you preparing - you said to give a message more than you were to parry and all of that sort of thing - -

JACK KEMP: Yeah. I had told Senator Dole that I wasn't an attack dog when he first picked me for his running mate. I demurred a little bit in that I wasn't, I didn't think, a good attack dog; that I was more used to promoting ideas than just opposing ideas, that conservatives had spent too much time just being opposed to things, and not enough time proposing. So I really felt that was my strength. But looking back on it, I think now I would have probably spent, or taken more opportunity during that debate, to launch a better attack against what I thought was the social engineering from the left, from Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and certainly taking them on in other areas as well, particularly foreign policy and domestic social policy.

JIM LEHRER: You caught some heat after that debate on one thing, because I asked the first question of you - do you remember the question?

JACK KEMP: Yeah, I sure do.

JIM LEHRER: There had been carry-on from the prior debate between Dole and Clinton  and about the personal character issue, and I asked you the question about whether or not you had anything to say about it, and you said no.

JACK KEMP: Well, I didn't say no.

JIM LEHRER: Well, no, but -

JACK KEMP: The way you asked the question, you said - I read it last night actually, thinking about today - and you asked the question that Bob and I had been criticized for not taking on President Clinton and Al Gore on a more personal basis, but then you also said on the ethical questions why didn't you take them on. And all I heard was personal, and Bob had been saying, if you remember, that we don't see them as our enemy, we see them as an adversary, which I thought was a positive idea for a political campaign, lifting politics up in the eyes of the public rather than taking people down.

But I think I clearly missed the opportunity to take on the fact that President Clinton had said he was going to have the most ethical administration in the history of America, and he was vulnerable there. And all I heard was personal. No, we weren't going to be personal, but had I separated the personal from the ethical, I think we could have made some points. I don't think it would have made that much difference, but nonetheless, I got heavily, heavily criticized for that, and it was probably weakness on my part.

JIM LEHRER: Did you have a lot of coordination between your group and the Dole group about what you would say in response to certain questions in certain areas?

JACK KEMP: Yes... there was coordination. They didn't try to program me. I think basically they knew they couldn't program Jack Kemp anyway. It might have been maybe better had I had a little more coordination.

JIM LEHRER: On this issue specifically about ethical issues -

JACK KEMP: Yeah, I think I should have been given, and I'm not blaming anybody because I haven't lost a lot of football games on Sunday. I could see my mistakes and hopefully improve upon them, and I think I learned from this type of a debate what I would have done, or what I would do next time. But having said that, I think it would have helped to have better prepared for that question which was sure to come from you.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that people who watched that debate got a good feel for Jack Kemp and what you had to offer as vice president of the United States?

JACK KEMP: That's hard for me to answer. I was myself, I was very comfortable. Al Gore and I, he played a dirty trick on me, called me a nice guy and that just totally unnerved me and ruined my political career. But seriously, I think they got a pretty good idea.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think it was revealing?

JACK KEMP: Yeah, well, revealing insofar as the very limited rules of engagement so to speak. I would have liked to have had two or three, and I particularly would have liked going back to the previous question, Jim. I would have loved to have had the type of standup audience participatory debate that President Clinton and Bob Dole had, the last debate of their series.

JIM LEHRER: Did you go into that - you were a competitor, and you're a professional football player, and you're a politician, you won elections, you won football games and all that. Did you go into that debate down there in St. Petersburg determined to win that debate? Did you see it in competitive terms?

JACK KEMP: I didn't see it in the sense that it was Kemp versus Gore, as much as I saw it as Bob Dole versus President Clinton. Our view of the world against their view of the world, and so I really wanted to do a good job for Bob, because I respected him. I thought he would make a great leader for our country in the post-Cold War world, and I wanted to win for him more than myself, if you can understand that. I mean, it's not that my ego wasn't involved because it was, but I really wanted to lift up the Dole view and vision of America for the next century.

JIM LEHRER: When it was all said and done, when it was over, how did you feel about it personally?

JACK KEMP: I felt all right. I knew that I had missed that first question, so I felt bad, you know, for Bob. The spinning that went on afterwards clearly accentuated the fact that I hadn't won, and then, you know, they were very good at spinning it. And I think the Dole campaign, by and large, probably were somewhat disappointed. I know that a lot of conservatives were that I didn't, you know, go for the ankles.

But again, having read the debate last night, it wasn't a bad debate, and I watched it on TV, I watched a replay of it, and, you know, I have no real profound regrets. I didn't sell my soul for the office of vice president, and I came out of it as an honorable running mate to a great man, Bob Dole.

JIM LEHRER: What did you see as the high point for you, from your point of view?

JACK KEMP:  In the debate?

JIM LEHRER:  In the debate.

JACK KEMP: I said that I only had two real disagreements with the Clinton/Gore presidency and vice presidency. One was foreign policy and one was domestic policy, and I thought I made some good points on foreign policy, and I particularly thought that, having read it again, I made a good case for allowing the American people to have their income after taxes go up, not down.

The Clinton Administration had made the point that if you send your children to college you get a tax credit. You got a tax credit for having babies, you got tax credits for day care, you would get a tax credit for staying home with your children, you would get tax credits for the environment, tax credits for steel companies who were being competed with. I mean, they had the whole tax code engineered to do what Bill Clinton and Al Gore wanted you to do, and I thought I made a fairly - hopefully, a fairly good case, that we wanted to cut the tax rates across the board to allow the American working families to have more income after taxes, and be able to spend it the way they wanted to spend it, or save it, or invest it, and I think that is - happens to be the issue today, that the Democratic party, bless their hearts, and this administration are social engineers. And I don't like social engineering from the left, and I don't even like it from the right.

 

JIM LEHRER: When you went into the debate, if you can try to recall your mindset at the time, did you feel that the election was riding on your performance?

JACK KEMP: No.

JIM LEHRER:  No?

JACK KEMP: No, no. With all due respect, I don't think vice presidents make that much difference, (a), and (b) looking at it from Bob's standpoint, pretty tough to beat peace and prosperity. It really is. I mean, I don't know if Ronnie Reagan could have beaten President Clinton because he was effectively a president who was getting the benefit of what President Reagan and President Bush had done both in domestic and foreign policy. He reappointed Alan Greenspan. He had a Secretary of Treasury who was willing to sign a capital gain tax cut. Welfare reform had been signed into law, which was a Republican congressional initiative, and he sounded like Bill Bennett on social policy. I mean, he was pretty clever moving to the center, and kind of pushed us, you know, a little bit off to the right.

JIM LEHRER: So when it was all over, you didn't say to yourself -- oh, my goodness, if I had only done this, if I had only said that?

JACK KEMP: No. I felt that I hadn't done the very best job that I could do. I guess everybody thinks that when they perform. And I ... really wanted to do a good job for Bob Dole because I had such high regard - we worked from the same wing of the Republican party. He was much more orthodox, I was much more of a, for lack of a better word, a "Reaganite" and it was a marriage not of convenience, but of respect. And I wanted very much to do the very best job I could do so that he would be elevated and his platform, our platform would be elevated in the eyes of the American people. But I don't think - I don't think that debate made the difference of the campaign.

JIM LEHRER: You mentioned format.  Let’s talk about that for a minute.  What would be the best format for these kinds of debates, vice presidential, presidential debates?

JACK KEMP: A combination of what took place. You or someone like you with - you know, held in high regard for your journalistic integrity, asking questions, or a panel, but also an opportunity to have some audience participation. I would have loved to, as I said earlier, be able to walk out from a - behind that podium and to be able to engage the audience with some of their questions, because that would have been better for Jack Kemp.

But that's - it's no sour grapes. I'm just saying, you know, looking at the old game films on Monday morning, that's what I felt I would have rather have done. But that was the rules of engagement, and I had to play by those rules...

JIM LEHRER: But if you had you druthers, that would be the way the debates would be – or a combination, a little bit of both?

JACK KEMP:  Yeah, yeah, a combination of both

JIM LEHER:  Do you think they should be required of candidates

JACK KEMP: What’s that?

JIM LEHRER: I mean, do you think anybody who runs for president of the United States, vice president of the United States should be forced to do debates?

JACK KEMP: Yeah.

JIM LEHRER:  How would you do it?

JACK KEMP:  I don’t think you can force people, but I think the American people want to see the interactivity between candidates and audiences, and tough questions posed by people and how you handle them under fire. So I think by - I think de facto, the rules would require that you do it. You'd make a big mistake if you didn't, let me put it that way.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think there's a direct connection between the ability of, say, Jack Kemp or any other candidate for president or vice president to debate and his or her abilities to function as president or vice president of the United States?

JACK KEMP: Only insofar as it gives people in a democracy the idea of what type of men and women they're electing to office, how they handle those questions, how they handle both the softballs and some of the hardballs of the political arena. I don't think it's the final determinant, but I think it gives people an impression. You know, you could ask how would Abraham Lincoln have looked in a debate like that, or how would Harry Truman - you know, Harry Truman was not a great speaker. He was a great president, not a great debater. I don't know if he was or not. We never saw him in that format. I guess given modern electronics, modern technology, and modern democracy, it's pretty much a test of a guy or a gal's ability under fire to handle him or herself.

JIM LEHRER: A legitimate test.

JACK KEMP: I think it's a legitimate test. It's not the only test. I'm much more focused on issues and ideas. I made some comments that the Clinton administration was bombing Iraq before breakfast, which I used as a metaphor to suggest that they were bombing without the coalition that George Bush had built up during the Gulf War, they were bombing without asking Colin Powell or the Senate or Congress for their advice, they were just “bombing before breakfast.”  I took a lot of heat for it, but looking back at their foreign policy to react against Sudan, or Afghanistan or Northern or Southern no-fly zones in Iraq, and now in Kosovo and Bosnia, I was right on target. I wish I had a chance to explain it, but you didn’t let me elaborate.

JIM LEHRER: Ran out of time..  Anything else you want to say about debates, Jack?

JACK KEMP:  I don’t think so.
 

 


 

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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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