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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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Ronald Reagan Interview
August 7, 1989

JIM LEHRER: Mr. President, welcome. We want to go through and talk about the presidential debates that you've participated in, and also get some general comments.
First, 1980, you were [in] two debates. You debated John Anderson, then you debated President Carter. What led up to the decision to debate Anderson by himself?


PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Well, he was a candidate, as you recall, independent -- there were three of us, and they wanted a three-way debate, and Carter refused to do that one, and I didn't see any reason why Anderson should be excommunicated. So I said no, I would go forward with it. It became just a two-way debate.

JIM LEHRER: How did you feel about that debate? How did you feel you did? Was  there any special preparation you did because it was John Anderson? Do you remember?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: No, and I felt that I did all right. The questions were pretty legitimate questions on policies and so forth, and we both answered. I did say--  he had made some very complimentary remarks at a time about Teddy Kennedy, and I couldn't resist, as we were sitting there waiting for another question, I asked him aloud if he really thought Teddy Kennedy should be president. (Laughs)

JIM LEHRER: Now look, on President Carter, President Carter said that he wanted three or four, even more debates with you, one-on-one, and the end result was only one. What was your thinking, the campaign strategy about taking on Jimmy Carter, and how many debates there should be, etc.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Well, frankly, I thought that the position I had taken with regard to Anderson was one of the reasons why two men debates, that we should just-- I should join him in isolating and eliminating Anderson from the debates. And then it was down to-- we're getting right down to the last days of the campaign, and it was pretty obvious that we were the two candidates out there, and then, when it was offered again, I accepted and said all right, we'll do this last debate, the two of us.

JIM LEHRER: What was your feeling about your own abilities as a debater, whether it was Jimmy Carter, or John Anderson, or whatever? Was it something you looked forward to, something you dreaded? How did you feel about debating?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Well, I didn't dread it, and having gone through a couple of elections with regard to the governorship, I saw some value in them. It was a chance for a contrast between the positions of the two individuals, and this is what the people should be voting on. And so when it finally came down to the wire, and it was obvious that the race was between the two of us. I proposed, or I said yes, I would debate.

JIM LEHRER: What kind of preparation did you go through for the Jimmy Carter debate?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Well, we had come back for the final days here and had a place down in Virginia that had been loaned to us, a home down there, and so we could be campaigning more here in the East and all. And yes, we would get together, and they’d throw questions at me and so forth, our people would, and we had several days of this, and I thought it helped to do that.

JIM LEHRER: This was the time where Jeane Kirkpatrick, George Will, David Stockman played the various roles?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Yeah, Dave most of the time, if they were doing things like that, would play Carter. 

JIM LEHRER: What was the difference between the preparation and the debate itself? When you got there, did you feel like that you had prepared properly for it?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Yes. Yes. It was just things of them trying to think based on the campaign positions that both of us had taken to where there were differences and so forth, well, to zero in on those differences so the people had a right to see what views each one of us had on specific things.

JIM LEHRER: Did you have a strategy going into the debate that you wanted to accomplish the following, if nothing else, or establish a certain thing?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Well, I believe that I had a program, that I wasn't just going in there and asking for the job and then saying now what do we do. I had some things that I thought very definitely should be done, and that was what I felt should come out of the debate. The people had a right to hear what were our plans, what were our philosophies.

JIM LEHRER: President Carter said that his strategy going into that debate was to show the people that you were not that well informed on national security and foreign affairs policy. Did you know that going in, that that was his target?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: No, I didn't really know that, but I think he was a little off base in that because as governor, first of all, I was governor of a state that if it were a nation, would be the seventh ranking economic power in the world, California. But also, President Nixon had asked me on a number of occasions to represent him on trips abroad. And I had been in 18 countries and actually meeting with the heads of state of 18 countries while I was still a governor. And I think that I had a pretty good insight into our foreign policy and those foreign affairs.

JIM LEHRER: That debate is remembered for several things. One of them is your line, "There you go again." Tell me about that. How did that come about?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN:  The thing is—isn’t this terrible, the years have gone by and at this particular point, maybe you can, but I can’t remember what the issue was, but it was something that had been in the debate and had been—back and forth and so forth—  and in other words, it was a statement that he made and so forth and I just couldn’t resist. I was sitting over there and I said, “There you go again.”

JIM LEHRER: It was about Medicare. It came up in a discussion about Medicare, and whether you had favored it or not, early on.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Oh, yes.

JIM LEHRER: And you said, "There you go again."

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Well, at that time, some of the people who were proposing this, and I wasn't against the Medicare bill that finally came along, but some of the people that were proposing this, it was obvious that they, in reality, wanted socialized medicine. And I know a little bit about socialized medicine as it's practiced in a number of other countries and one country, I won’t name it, but for example, beyond a certain age, people requiring surgery in that country were put on waiting lists. The government was hoping that before they got around to their operation, they wouldn’t need it; they wouldn’t be there anymore.

JIM LEHRER: I see. I see. Was "There you go again" a line that just came to you spontaneously, or was it something that you had worked on?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: No, it just seemed to be the thing to say in what he was saying up there, because it was to me it felt kind of repetitious, something we had heard before.

JIM LEHRER: The other thing that came out of that debate was President Carter's statement about his daughter, Amy, and that he had talked to his daughter about what the big issue was, and she had said nuclear proliferation, nuclear weapons, nuclear disarmament. When he said that, you were standing there on the stage, did you, were you aware of the fact that he had made a terrible mistake?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: It seemed to me he had, because the whole thing sounded, and I think you could almost feel an attitude from the audience on it, that the President was going to make a major policy based on what a child told him? And I'm sure he didn't have that in mind, but that's the way it came out. And I was prepared to say to the people, I promise them I wouldn't ask my kids what I should do.

JIM LEHRER: That's how you felt that night. You knew that when he said it. Generally, how important do you think that debate was to your having defeated President Carter?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Well, I think there were some things. As a matter of fact, I think a very telling line was at the very end of the debate when I told the people that if they believed they were better off than they were four years ago, then they had no other choice but to vote for my opponent. But if they thought they weren't better off, and there were things that could be done, I'd like to offer myself as the candidate for their selection. And I did feel that there were very definite shortcomings. You know, we were being told by our government before that election that we should lower our sights, that never again would we live at the level that we had lived as Americans, that the world was different now and that we must be willing to tighten our belts and not have the things we used to have.
Well, my philosophy and my belief was that there was a long way for us to go in improving what we had ever known before, that this country of ours was a country of constant improvement. And so I thought that, what my whole approach was based on,  the promise of a better America.

JIM LEHRER: And the debate made it—that particular joint appearance or debate made it possible for you to get that message over and you think that was crucial to your having won the election?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Let's move to 1984. You debated Walter Mondale twice; the first debate, Louisville, Kentucky. The consensus afterward, Mr. President, was that you were tired, didn't do that well, etc. Do you agree with that? Were you tired?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: No, it wasn't tired. I was overtrained. We then-- being there in office and all, everyone available, I want to tell you, I just had more facts and figures poured at me for weeks before than anyone could possibly sort out and use, and I call it overtraining. When I got there, I realized that I was wracking my brain so much for facts and figures on whatever subject we were talking about, that I knew I didn't do well. And the second debate, I wasn't overtrained.

JIM LEHRER: And you feel you pulled that one out, no question about that one, right?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Yup.

JIM LEHRER: And you remember your line about--  because the age – the first one  the age factor was raised as a result of that.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: I couldn't believe that question when it came at me from that press board that was there and asked me about my age, and was that going to be an issue in the campaign. And I thought, that had to be turned around and that was when I said there’s no way, that just for political purposes, I would take advantage of my opponent's youth and inexperience. (Laughs)

JIM LEHRER: Was that one you were laying for?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: I never thought about it coming up. That was really off the top of my head.

JIM LEHRER: And you did not do the kind of preparation at all for the second one you did for the first one.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: No, I felt we had learned our lesson.

JIM LEHRER: You won that election by a huge margin. How important do you think the debates were to your victory?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Well, I have no way of knowing how much they might have contributed. I think if you judged them at all, they had to contribute something; if you won, that it was favorable to you. But I have no way of knowing how many people it might have swayed or changed.

JIM LEHRER: Generally, Mr. President, do you think these debates should be a required part of the political process, the presidential election process?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: I'm inclined to lean that way, yes, because-- and they could be in different formats than maybe we've had in the past-- but the contest is finally there before people. The people have a right to know all they can in comparison to make a decision. But if the debate is concentrated then on the major issues and the views of the two individuals on those issues, then it is of service to the people.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that there is a correlation between a person's ability to debate and how he or she might perform as president of the United States?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Well, I was thinking of it more of getting the views on these issues. What does each person say they are going to try to do, and how do they see the issue. That's the thing the people need to know.

JIM LEHRER: Have you given any thought to a process that could institutionalize this, or should it always be subject to negotiation, and each election taken individually and be subject to the whims of the particular candidates?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Well, maybe what we should do is put together a pretty scholarly team first to look at that whole subject, and then see what would be the best way first of all to decide on what do you want to accomplish. You want to accomplish what are the views of the two individuals on the problems of the day and their proposals to deal with those problems. So then I think it would take some experts to say how best can this be brought about.
We've done the things of just having press representatives answer questions. But one of the things wrong is that many times they don't ask the same question of both people. They've got a different set of questions for each one. Shouldn't it be, have a questioner or questioners there, and they have a set of questions that they believe are the questions necessary to be answered for the people to make a decision, and then each candidate is asked the same question.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think of the suggestion that federal matching funds be tied to this? In other words, if you are going to run for president and get matching funds, you have to agree to a certain number of debates or joint appearances.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Well, again, I think that a study could be made—and a bipartisan study – could be made as to determining the value, and then how many there should be to achieve that end, and have that be the result of careful bipartisan study and thinking of it from the standpoint of how many of these would be necessary for the people to actually see together the candidates and make their decision on that basis.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, Mr. President, let me ask you about a debate that was crucial in your political career even though it wasn’t – it was during a primary – it was in New Hampshire in 1980 with George Bush and tell me that story about the microphone and all of that because it was considered very important, as you know.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: (Laughs) Well, a newspaper up there had called for, late in the game, in the primary, a debate. And then, because it seems that George and I were the two out front the most, they wanted to limit it to the two, just the two of us. Well, there are a number of other pretty respectable candidates and I couldn’t see that at all. I felt that very definitely everybody ought to have a crack at this and the paper kept saying “no.”  Now, a funny thing happened. Some decision was made with regard to the newspaper’s sponsorship of this—that it was in violation of somehow the funding rules and so forth—I can’t remember the details of that. But, the newspaper was not allowed to finance this debate and we volunteered to fund it and put up the money that it took to put this thing on. Then, I invited all the other candidates on our ticket to come and felt that it should be the whole thing. Well, the paper had wanted one too and they continued with George’s team to say that there should only be two. Well, I invited the others to come and they appeared, and they were there on the platform, and the people in charge of the paper were saying, you know, that they had to leave, that it was just going to be the two of us, and I was opposing this. And, one of the newspapermen who was kind of honchoing the whole debate, on his microphone, called on the man who was in charge of the microphones and told him, with all the audience listening, to shut my microphone off so that I couldn’t be heard. And, I couldn’t resist, I said, “Mr. Green, I paid for this microphone.” And, it got quite a laugh and reaction from the audience because they knew how we were doing it.

JIM LEHRER: You know, there are some people who suggested at the time and since that that showed – that that had a lot to do with your winning that primary.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Well.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Well, I’ve heard reports to that effect. The laugh from the audience was definitely on my side, and I was kind of mad.

JIM LEHRER: Did you watch the 1988 presidential debates between Dukakis and Bush?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think they were constructive and good for the process?

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Not too much so because there again, there were different questions asked of the two candidates instead of them facing the same question and all. And I just thought it was mismanaged from that standpoint. 

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

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: Thank you, a pleasure.

1st Documentary

1976

1980

1984

1988

1992

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

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