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starsJim Lehrer hosts Debating Our Destiny
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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Walter Mondale Interview
May 25, 1990

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Vice President, welcome.

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: We want to go through your own experiences with national debates, and then get some general comments and observations on this whole process. Your first one was as a candidate for vice president in 1976. It was in Houston against Senator Dole. Do you remember how you prepared for that debate?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: Yes, I do. We worked very hard at it. We put a team of bright advisers together and we sought to anticipate every question. We tried to consider what kind of positive points, what kinds of themes, we spent a lot of time working on it.

JIM LEHRER: Did you actually rehearse?

VICE PRESIDENT MONDALE: No, I don’t think we rehearsed that time. Maybe a little bit. Later on we actually rehearsed.

JIM LEHRER: What was your strategy? What did you want to do? What did you want to accomplish in that debate?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: I wanted to show the progressive dimensions of our ticket, appeal to middle and moderate income Americans that we were the better prepared and committed; that we had the best approach for peace; and to show that I had the experience, background and ability to be a good vice president.

JIM LEHRER: But did you not also want to demonstrate some things about Senator Dole?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: We-- I did not have a plan to open up an attack. It’s kind of funny, but he and I are old friends, we’ve known each other for years, but I did anticipate that he would, and that I would then respond to it. Unbelievably, we’d anticipated that he would accuse the Democrats of starting World War II, and he did. (Laughs) It was unbelievable. I had to try to keep a straight face cuz--  I think they blew the election right there.

JIM LEHRER: How in the world were you able to anticipate that?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: One of my advisers said -- I'll never forget this. We were just closing down the last discussion, and he said, "I'll bet that Senator Dole will accuse the Democrats of causing World War II," and I said, "You are crazy." He said, "No, I've got a feeling he'll do it." So I said, "Well, how shall we handle it?" And he did it. (Laughs)

JIM LEHRER: The general consensus after that was that he came over as a mean – I mean that's where he got his real reputation for being mean, nasty, and all of that. Was that what you went in to accomplish—to show him up as a mean, nasty man?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: No, no, no and I don’t think he’s a mean, nasty man. I just think he performed poorly that night. That was not my idea. I wanted it to be positive. I wanted to—this is the first time the public had really seen me, you know the audience was so massive—I wanted to emphasize the positive. But, we spent some time anticipating what we’d do if he tried to attack me, which I assumed he would do.

JIM LEHRER: When it was over, the second that debate was over that night in Houston, did you think you had taken him? Did you think you had won?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: Yes, I walked off there convinced that we may have won the election that night—not because of me but I think it was very poor strategy on his part and it opened up an issue. And the next three or four days [it] became obvious, enormous crowds, excitement, a sense of victory in the air, you could just feel it. As a matter of fact, my first stop was Wichita, Kansas and has expected maybe three, four hundred people. We had over five thousand people and we nearly carried Kansas.

JIM LEHRER: That’s, of course, the Senator’s home state.
VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: Right.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Dole’s home state. One thing generally about your own feelings about debates at that time, did you feel good about your own abilities as a debater? Had you done a lot of debating as a senator, or back in Minnesota when you were Attorney General and that sort of thing?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: Yeah, I had been a debater in college. I had debated a lot. When I ran for office, I always debated my opponents. I felt very strongly about the need for debates. If you want substance in politics, you just inevitably are driven to believe in debates. And, of course, did a lot of it in the United States Senate, and I thought I could handle myself.

JIM LEHRER: All right, let's go now to the debates that you had with Ronald Reagan in 1984. There were two of them, the first in Louisville, Kentucky. How did you prepare for that one?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: The same way except we actually rehearsed. We'd actually go through a debate. Mike Sovern, the president of Columbia University, played Reagan. I played Mondale, and we'd have a news panel, and we'd--

JIM LEHRER: Where did you do it?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: Did it in my home. And we actually set up lecterns, and we had a video tape and we'd look at things, and we mapped out a strategy for how I wanted--- what approach I wanted to take, what questions are liable to come up and so on.

JIM LEHRER: Did you look at tapes of yourself performing in the past?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: Um-hmm. I looked at past debates with others. I looked at the debate that I'd had of Dole. I looked at, for example, the Ford-Carter debates, the Reagan-Anderson debates. I looked on all the past debates to see what happened.

JIM LEHRER: Do you remember whether you had a—was there a bottom line there? Was there a strategy going in that you wanted-- something you wanted to accomplish, a bottom line?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: I wanted to show presidential stature. I wanted to show mastery of the issues. I wanted to show that progressive dimension again, I wanted to show that I was more alert than the president, without being negative. And I wanted the debate to build around that, that theme.

JIM LEHRER: The consensus afterward was that you took him. You won that debate. We're talking about Louisville now. Did you agree with that when it was over?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: Yes. I knew I didn't win the second one, but I came off the platform after the first debate feeling the same way I did after the debate with Dole. I knew we had won.

JIM LEHRER: Why, why, what went right for you?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: There were two or three things in there. One, I had anticipated that he'd say, "There you go again," and I was ready for that because I opened up the Social Security issue, because he went again, and this was really something he shouldn’t have done, but I figured he was going to do it. Secondly, there were two or three other clashes there where I think he did not do very ---  he brought up this whole idea that, "I didn't leave the Democratic party, it left me," and I said, "Yeah, you left with Mr. Nixon, and I stayed with John F. Kennedy," and I'm sure I picked up support on that.
But the main thing, I think, that hurt him was he seemed to be ill-focused, he seemed to lose his way, stumble, roam around in irrelevancies, and it was an impressively unimpressive personal performance on his part, the first debate. The second debate was entirely different.

JIM LEHRER: What happened between Louisville and Kansas City?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: Well, two or three interesting things happened. I think they knew they couldn't do this again without opening it up and giving me a possible win. They protected him from working hard and so on, so he was fresh. I think they got him into sort of a fighting mood. They spent a tremendous amount of time demanding that that debate end precisely in 90 minutes.
One of the things that happened in the first debate is that it went on another 15 minutes, and he just kept getting worse and worse and worse. And so they were-- you notice that second debate ended right there. He, I think he was clearly much more in command the second time, and that showed. That was really the end of my campaign that night, I think.

JIM LEHRER: Is that right?
VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: That's what I thought.
JIM LEHRER: Because he --

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: He did well enough. I think the public wanted to vote for Reagan, which they later demonstrated. And that the only thing that was going to give me a chance was a feeling that he was losing the full mastery of the presidency.

JIM LEHRER: Now that was the big question after Louisville.

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: After the first debate.

JIM LEHRER: And did you make a decision going into the Kansas City debate that you had to try to keep that one alive? Was there a strategy working there?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: That one really he had to handle by himself. I always, you know, debating a president is different. You have to show respect for him, respect for his office, and I think I did. I did not want to come off—and I don’t think I am, at heart, a hatchet man. I don’t get any joy out of hacking people up, but it would show—I mean really Dole lost— let me put it, he made it possible for me to win. The first debate with Reagan, it was Reagan’s performance that gave me the win. Maybe I did some things, but fundamentally, it was a significant failure on their part. In the last debate with Reagan when he performed reasonably well, I could not score.

JIM LEHRER: And did you know that, that night, when it was over?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: Yes, I walked off and I was almost certain the campaign was over, and it was.

JIM LEHRER: Did you say that to anybody?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: My wife. You know, you don’t dare— one of you newsmen hear about it and might even report it.

JIM LEHRER: If there had not been that second debate, do you think you might have won the election?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: No. I think it would have been closer. The public was so strongly supportive of Reagan. The economy was doing so well, and so on, that he had about a 20, 25 percent lead on me according to some polls, and I think the only thing that would have changed it is that the public was convinced that he was losing his capacity to be a president, and I think it had to be that deep. The first debate raised those questions. I couldn't raise them. His performance raised it. But it was not enough to have moved it to victory.

JIM LEHRER: If, for whatever reason, if you had found that you were willing to go after him on that issue in the debate, in the second debate, on whether or not he was losing it or not, whether or not he had the capacity, the mental capacity, to function as president, would that have hurt you in the long run more than it would have hurt him?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: Yes. First of all, I would never have done it. I just am not that kind of politician. Secondly, I think people say here's a mean man, and this is a personal below the belt thing, and I'm not going to vote for a person like that, and I think I would have been spanked for lack of respect for him and for the presidency.
But what I did do, which I thought was perfectly proper, was-- I made, tried to make a big issue out of a president who was out of touch, uninformed, not involved, because I thought there was abundant evidence of that. And at many points in the debate I'd bring up issues that would suggest that he hadn't been paying much attention to this issue or that issue.

JIM LEHRER: The line that came up where he said "I'm not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience." Was that when you knew you were in trouble?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: Yeah, he got the audience with that, yeah. I could tell that one hurt.

JIM LEHRER: Did that strike you as obviously a pre-programmed line?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: (Laughs) Well, I'll tell you, if TV can tell the truth, as you say it can, you will see that I was smiling, but I think if you come in close, you'll see some tears coming down because I knew he had gotten me there.

JIM LEHRER: Are debates something that should be a required part of the presidential process?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: Absolutely. I've been in this public life, presidential races and so on for most of my life, starting in early Hubert Humphrey days, and I am sick about the diminished lack of substance, real closure on the important questions in our campaigns. I think we're in what I call the era of the marketer, where the skills of avoidance, irrelevance, negatives have taken over from substance. It's never been perfect, I know that, but it's now shameful. It is only in debates where the candidate stands there alone without notes, standing up toe to toe with his opponent, has to answer these questions from sharp news people, has to show the ability to range across issues, understand them, speak, persuade, reveals values, personality, character, stature questions, all of these mystical things that we consider when we try to pick this person for the highest office on earth, and nothing matches debates for that purpose. They're not perfect; a lot of canned speeches, but they can't get away with that, and I think there are some changes that would help that, but the reason that 150 to 175 million Americans watch this—they don’t really like politics, but they watch those—because they think they’ll learn something.

JIM LEHRER: So you believe there is a connection between an ability of a person to debate and how that person might function as president of the United States?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: I think there is some of that, but I dismiss the idea that winning debates is a college debate technique, that it's something slick. I don't think that's what the American people are looking for, you know, a slippery performer that 100 years ago used to sell patent medicine, now decides to run for president.
I don't think that sells. I think the people are looking for decency, for substance, for values. They're not looking for the slick answer. Those who dismiss these debates on the grounds they're just for people that are smooth, I don't think that's it at all.

JIM LEHRER: How, in an ideal world, would you run it. First of all, how would you get it to become a permanent part of the election process?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: I think there are two fundamental questions; you've asked both of them in a different order than I would have asked them. Number one, how do you make certain these people debate? It's becoming more of an institution, so that there's more historical pressure on these candidates, but it's by no means certain that we're going to have debates in the future, or debates that get to substance.
So how do we do that? I would like to condition the financial support that goes to these candidates, the federal campaign support, to a requirement that they debate, say, six times.

JIM LEHRER: Six times?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: Enough times, but have a different subject each night. The second thing that I put a lot of emphasis on, because I've watched all these debates and participated in so many, is it goes to the quality of the news men and women on the panel, their background in the field, their willingness to be tough, and a rule that permits them to come in with a follow-on question, where a candidate’s ducking, you can jump right in; where you have flat panelists that are not alert or deferential or pets or whatever they are, I think it ruins the debate. So I would put a lot of emphasis, and maybe have some independent organization pick the news people. I don't know who that would be, but make certain-- and I would have it someone from the journalist industry-- make certain that these are the best people in the field. If we debate national security one night, it should be the three best reporters that can be found. For debating social policy, it should be the three-- and then they really ought to go at those candidates hard.
I would be for maybe longer than an hour and a half debates, although that's a minor point. The main point is to have several debates with specific broad, fundamental issues each night, with three of the toughest news people that could be found.

JIM LEHRER: What do you say to those who say that they ought to get the press out of it all together. Let the two candidates stand up there with a moderator and go at it.

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: I've done it both ways. When you get in the others, you have to start fighting over time, you have to start hollering over the other person to get some time. You have to play tricks to try to get the camera to cover you and not the other person. You really ought to have a translator with one of those hearing aids so you can dial the one you want to listen to, because it's just going to be-- and what they're going to talk about, some form of issues, some logical progression is impossible. What they're trying to get at, of course, is that the present format and the one I'm recommending isn't perfect. There are no perfect formats. It happens to be better than any other because I think it gives you a chance to go into these issues, substance, with good news men and women. It wouldn't happen otherwise.

JIM LEHRER: Did you watch the 1988 debates--  
VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: -- Bush-Dukakis? What did you think about them?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: I think they had a good deal to do with the outcome of the election. As a matter of fact, I think if you look at all the debates, not every debate, but the summary of most debates, they had something to do with these elections. For some reason, the second debate Dukakis was clear off, and I thought the answer on the rape of his wife was devastating. I know he didn't mean it that way, but it -- I jumped out of my chair. I said, “Mention her name!” I thought it was-- I think whatever we had was gone that night.

JIM LEHRER: And many people said that regardless about that question and the answer, whatever, it was an accurate reflection of the two candidates. Is that your point, too?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: That's—see, people make a mistake. This is why these debates—additional reason, it’s very important. A lot of scholars and so on think that people are thinking only of issues. Okay, here's Social Security trust fund, what is it. That's only barely true. People are looking at character, they're looking for presidential stature. That's an entirely different thing. They're looking at emotional makeup. Values. They’re looking for a sense of humor that tells them this guy can laugh at himself. There's a lot of things that go into this mysterious public selection of who could be a president, that has only marginal relationship to issues. I think they figure that the person is honest and healthy and committed, that that's more important to them than that the person might be right on some issues. Because they figure if the person is right on the issues, but nuts, we're all in danger. But if he's healthy, it’ll work out. So I think a lot of these debates go to character.

JIM LEHRER: Anything else about these debates that I haven't asked you about that you have on your mind you would like to say about them, either based on your experience or your thinking about them?

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: The one thing I hear that bothers me,that you hear you asked both of them but I'd like to answer, one is that debates are for slickers--  cute, oily people that can slither around and get -- I think the public smells that right away. I think it discloses these other more basic things. It's not a technique, it's not a style that wins. It's something much deeper. And the public can see it and sense it in a debate, uncontrived, unprotected environment. And I feel so deeply about this that I'm a fanatic for these debates. It’s the only time the public can get away from manipulation and have a shot at it.
The second thing I keep hearing is: oh, these debates get boring, and these newsmen get in the way, and that's true. But they're better than any other alternative. If you can take so called college debating rules where you have a five minute opener, and a five minute response, and 10 minutes this and 10-- all you're going to get is canned speeches, I'll guarantee that, and you'll learn nothing. If you have a format where the two of them just go at each other, it’ll be a cat fight because they'll both be fighting desperately for time to be heard, they'll be cutting across each other's answers. There will be no logical or in-depth exploration of anything. So I think that the debate format that we've had, with some perfection, for all of its inadequacies, is demonstrably better than any other.
And the final point is, let's not forget that the biggest question of all is can we get them to debate. Thank God they've debated quite a bit. But there is nothing to prevent somebody who is ahead, just saying I think I'll not do this this time.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Vice President, thank you very much.

VICE PRESIDENT WALTER MONDALE: Thank you.

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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

Produced by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions in association with the Commission on Presidential Debates and WETA

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