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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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James Stockdale Interview
September 4, 1999

JIM LEHRER: Admiral Stockdale, welcome.

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Jim, happy to be here.

JIM LEHRER: You were the Reform Party candidate for vice president in 1992, and you participated in the vice presidential debate. In general terms, how would you characterize that experience for you?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: It was terribly frustrating because I remember I started with, "Who am I? Why am I here?" and I never got back to that because there was never an opportunity for me to explain my life to people. It was so different from Quayle and Gore. The four years in solitary confinement in Vietnam, 7½ years in prisons, dropped the first bomb that started the first American bombing raid in the North Vietnam. We blew the oil storage tanks of then off the map. And I never - I couldn't broach -- I don't say it just to brag, but, I mean, my sensitivities are completely different.

JIM LEHRER: That line, "Who am I? and "Why am I here?" of course, got great publicity. Was that something that you just said spontaneously, or had you thought about it before the thing began?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: I had thought about it a little bit, and I thought it would come to me in a way that I could explain the idea of building a prison civilization. You remember, I really remembered Mark Van Doren's quote. He said, "An intelligent person is one who, should a catastrophe strike, say doomsday... he could refound his own civilization," and I said, that's what I'm here to do. And we had our own laws. I mean, I wrote them. And we had our own customs, and traditions, and proprieties.

It was a very great group to work with. They did not want to be - here is the typical situation. A new guy, rather senior, comes in and he is, because of his seniority he takes over this cell block - and I've heard this so many times. And he'll get up and give an apologetic little whispered talk. You weren't to talk but at the right time. But he said, "I don't feel like - I feel empowered, and under these circumstances when we're getting tortured for all these things - empowered to design your own defense. I'll leave that up to you." And then silence.

And then time and again the old boys, the guys said, "Sir, you have no right to tell us ‘good luck’ and leave us. We want to know what you want us to take torture for. Give us the list. Give us 10 or 12 things that we have to go in there and take torture for." Now that's where they wanted to live so we can sleep at night. People wouldn't think that was -

JIM LEHRER: Fair. And yet you wanted, as a candidate for vice president of the United States, you wanted to be able to explain that to people as in terms of who you are, and who you were, and how you got there?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Yeah, that's human nature. I think it's a very valid photograph of human nature, of smart, aggressive people.

JIM LEHRER: And yet you said that you feel like you were - I quote, "I feel like I'm an observer at a ping-pong game." That's what you - I mean, and that's what it boiled down to, is that right, for you?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Yeah. I mean, it just seemed to me that it was - I felt so helpless to this business of not having any papers. That seems like a throwback to a schoolboy.

JIM LEHRER: Taking an exam of some kind?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Yeah, and, you know, of course, these guys are right where they live. They, you know, every day they love to talk about health care, and, you know, Social Security, and I don't have, you know, I can learn about it but, I mean, that isn't the thing I get up in the morning and start sweating about.

JIM LEHRER: But there were a lot of - a lot of criticism of you, of course, as you know, was that you were not prepared on the issues like that. Did you - was that a fair criticism?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: That's a fair criticism, but I didn't get much help from anybody about it.

JIM LEHRER: What was the process that led up to the debate?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Well, first of all, I was asked by Ross Perot on a telephone call in March of 1992 if, since he had committed on the Larry King Show to becoming a candidate for president, to get on all 50 ballots, he said, now, he said, you know, "I just now came across the information, and about half the states have to have, or demand to have the VP candidate's name at the start." Each state runs its own show on that, I'm sure. But anyway, he said, "What I want to ask you is for a favor." He said, "Would you let me put in your name as a stand-in candidate, and then as soon as I can get a real politician to join me, I'll let you know and we'll erase your name?" And we got stuck in the mud somewhere.

I mean, we were just sitting back there in Coronado, and we - and pretty soon then he called up in July and said that I'm going to be going on TV in a few minutes and I'm going to say I'm resigning from the candidacy, that I'm going to get out. Well, then, I don't know where all this paperwork was - that's another thing, because the wheels were turning and I thought my name had been removed. But it hadn't, and he hadn't found anybody to run with him, as near as I can tell. And so it was - there was no preparation sponsored.

JIM LEHRER: And suddenly you were told you had to debate Gore and Quayle?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: We didn't know. Sybil and I were on the -

JIM LEHRER: Sybil's your wife.

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Sybil's my wife, and on the first day of October, that's the first time I knew Ross was going to run.

JIM LEHRER: That he was coming back into the race?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Yeah. And so Sybil said to me, whispered to me on that occasion, said, "Are you going to have to be in that - if they have a VP debate" - and it hadn't been really decided yet - "You're not going to have to be in that, are you?" I said, "No, everybody knows I'm not a politician." Then I started saying, "Well, let me think about that." And this was a rather short time span.

The debate popped up 12 days after that. I think that was about the date of the debate, and I sat there and I had already told her that, and then I started counting the time, and about a week before the debate I called Ross. I seldom called him, but in this case I said, "You know, I'm in luck. Nobody has ever mentioned that debate, and it's too late to invite me, and I think that's as it ought to be because I'm not a politician." He said, "Oh, Jim, I forgot to tell you. Your invitation came here about three weeks ago and we accepted for you, and I forgot to tell you." So that was the preparation. (Laughs)

JIM LEHRER: So you never sat down with briefing books, or didn't discuss this with Ross Perot in any way whatsoever?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: I never had a single conversation about politics with Ross Perot in my life; still haven't. (Laughs)

JIM LEHRER: Do you feel that you were treated unfairly by this whole thing?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: No, I guess not. I'm a grown man. You know, I've been in a lot of scrapes, but I never felt like I got so -- there are probably a lot of things I should have done that I didn't do. I mean, I didn't - I should have demanded attention of the boss maybe, or something like that that might have backfired. This I would just take as it came.

JIM LEHRER: But in this context, the context was you were not out campaigning, right? You were not out making speeches as the vice presidential candidate of the reform party?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Only a few in early summer, right after I got this call. There were Perot organizations that cropped up around San Diego as in most cities and -

JIM LEHRER: That's where you live, isn't it, San Diego?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Yes. And we - on several occasions they had asked me to give a short speech at the thing and go hurrah for Ross and that sort of thing. But after that, no, nothing.

JIM LEHRER: So in September and October, leading up to the debate, you were not an active candidate; right?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: No. Now, after the debate, Sybil and I opted for Secret Service protection, and then went on some campaigns, but never a flashy performance...

JIM LEHRER: Did you ever get in to it? Did your ever feel “Hey, I’m the candidate for vice president”?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: No, I was uncomfortable most of that time.

JIM LEHRER: What about your experience leading up it – and all that aside, and your relationship with Perot aside, how did you feel about the debate itself? In other words, do you think these debates should be a legitimate part of a presidential and vice presidential campaign?

JS:  I was maybe one of a kind, but I didn’t have the feeling the public had any idea who I was. I had lived such a different life and I’d been not just in the uniform services but I was in prison as a leader and as a senior officer in there and the issues were great, and I remember one time I had cell mate who had been shot down as a fighter pilot in World War II, his name was Vern Ligon, he has since passed away I am sorry to say. But he was a Captain and he was in Luftwaffe prison.  And we were in a set of leg irons. My left leg was in there in his right leg, so we had about two weeks that way. We had very gentlemanly talk – he said “Jim would you please pass me the bed pan”, and I said “here you are Vern”, we were locked in for the whole duration, whatever it came to, a few weeks.  But I said “how do you score this experience with your experience in World War II, in Germany?”. He said “no comparison – he said, there all I had to worry about wear and tear on my body”. He said “I was cold and I was hungry. They didn’t want any propaganda, they didn’t want to know any military secrets, they knew all of that.  They just let us sit there.” But he said “here, we’re under wear and tear on the nervous system and that’s a different story.”

JIM LEHRER: Do you feel that these debates should focus less on issues and more on these character kinds of things?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Yes. I think character is permanent, and issues are transient. Half the issues they - are so polished in talking about - are dead by the time they get into the office, and into the midst of their tour where they're really productive. So this is just a rhetoric exercise generally. This idea, as you know, that I have firm convictions that the idea of issues being a big deal where our mutual friend went back and he felt so strongly that the determining factor in electoral success should be a proven character. And you've got to design these so that everybody can somehow portray his character.

JIM LEHRER: How would you do that, Admiral?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Well, ask them. What was the most risky, physical provocation you made? I mean, did you - did you strike the commissar, did you - were you willing to go in the ropes? I mean, I really think that I would expect somebody that's leading the country to have some kind of - some kind of courage physically, personally.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, you would ask questions like have you ever been afraid, Senator? Have you -

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Well you’d probably have trouble with that.  I can see all of that, but...if I were up there today, if I could have taken this book and read a few passages from it to the audience, they would have said oh, I get it. He's a novice, but he's had these - he's experienced in leadership in tight circumstances. He started - he dropped the first bomb, led the first air strike into North Vietnam. I see. He's a little bit different, but let's get them all together, and that's -

JIM LEHRER: And those things, you think, are relevant to being president or vice president of the United States.

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: I do.

JIM LEHRER: Why?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Because people are - people are, I think, interested in the quality of the man's experience, and what he's prepared to do. The guy that just arranges things so that the stock market holds up is nobody in my - in my estimation.

JIM LEHRER: And somebody who can stand up and say things about issues in a kind of tight situation on a stage is not a test of presidential or vice-presidential leadership?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Oh, I suppose there are such things as people who have inspirations at just the right time to turn some issues around. I don't want to be just one-way about this, but I think that as I view the political array that they're such babes in the woods about the way the real world works, there's seldom - John McCain, my best friend, has been there, but he's the only one we're talking about now.

JIM LEHRER: But Admiral, what would you say to somebody who said, hey, wait a minute. If only people who have been through these kinds of experiences are qualified to be president and vice president of the United States, a candidate pool would be very, very small, would it not? It would first of all exclude everybody.

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: I wouldn't limit it. I just think that ... people that should be in politics are not limited to those who go to law school and then get a seat in Congress, and sit there until their time is up. That's a stereotypical American politician, and I think if you look at the whole world, the countries have varied backgrounds, and some of them are warriors, some of them are inventors, some of them are scientists, and we're just stuck on this one stereotypical guy that gets up there and recites these things. It just - the whole thing reminded me of a May pole dance. I was standing there trying to figure out how I could get my oar in and never really did. And they're just exercising right where they live everyday. They'll take an issue like Medicare, and they'll go from this way to that, and there's four different ways you can look at it, and they dance counter-clockwise a while. I said, what am I doing here? How can I break in and tell them this is - that's not the whole story on being the national leader.

JIM LEHRER:  Admiral, that’s wonderful.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

(VOICE OF PRODUCER SUGGESTING ADDITIONAL QUESTION TO JIM LEHRER)

JIM LEHRER: Right, good question.  How did you feel about the reaction in the public and in the press to your performance at that debate?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Well, of course, I - I had more positive feedback than I expected to. For one thing, the referee of the debate was very, very fair.

JIM LEHRER: Was Hal Bruno maybe seen as -

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Hal Bruno. I thought he sized up my predicament. I mean, I was a fish out of water, and he was very kind about that, and I'll tell you when my heart turned around. I think it was about three days after we got to Coronado and I picked up the New York Times, as we always do in the morning at our house, and there was Safire's column, and it was a tribute to the way I performed and, I mean, it was - it really just made me feel like a million bucks and I couldn't wait to see him, and hadn't ever met him before, but soon we were in the same company and, I mean, we met. But there were highs as well as lows, it was as though they said everybody was picking on the man who had more practical real life experiences than the whole batch of them put together.

JIM LEHRER: So on balance it was a fairly positive experience?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Yeah. I'm not going to ever do it again, but...(Laughs)

JIM LEHRER: I wrote down some of your lines and I look back on all of that and you were praised for saying not only “Who Am I? Why Am I Here?”, but “I think America is seen right now the reason this government is in gridlock.” Do you remember saying that?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE:  I’ve got a tape of that. I noticed when Sybil wrote on it, they gave it to us – it said “This is the VP debate in 1992 which we may look at later – ‘may’ being underlined” (Laughs). So I chose a time when she was out of the house and turned it on.  We had funny guys- I had fifteen years up there at the Hoover Institution, a scholar, and couple of them were…a guy named Arnold Beichman. He gets these friends in and he said “boy, last night we went out there, we had dinner with this guy and we went over and we just regaled each other with…and he came around about three times with something I didn’t really know much about, and it came to my turn the third time and I said ‘I’m out of ammunition’ ”.  I mean these guys were just -

JIM LEHRER: There's another line here that you were praised for saying, "I believe that a woman owns her own body, and what she does with it is her own business, period."

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: Well, I believe that, and I hadn't given it much thought, but I've got four daughters-in-law that would be pretty mad at me if I'd said much else....

JIM LEHRER: Another thing you said was “the best thing I had going for me was I had no contact with Washington for all those years”

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: That’s right, and boy, you know, that was really a feeling of power because…here, I’ll give you an example. Back in ’67, I was a leader of the whole shebang in the big central prison, and we were giving them hell. We were communicating, we were refusing to do things we didn’t want to do, and it was just about as good as an organization as we ever had. We could communicate by tap code, which we invented. And it was very functional. We had just the right mix here. We had all the seniors, except for a couple, that we didn’t know whether dead or alive, and then we had what I called the young turks.  And these were the middle grade, I mean these were the captains and majors that really know their stuff and the lieutenant colonels were running the whole thing – that was the whole story.  But they could communicate and I knew that even if I’m in this box – and I was in solitary for over four years. But I could communicate out of that. And the rabbit – we had to give these military officers – political officers – names because they couldn’t reveal their own name. We gave them animal names, generally.   Rabbit had ears like this…he is a colonel now in their army. If I could see him again, I’d go talk to him.  And if I could see him again, I’d go talk to him.  And he was reading this thing – “discipline in these camps is going downhill. Some of the Americans are inciting” – criminals, they wouldn’t say Americans – “some of the criminals are inciting other criminals to oppose camp authority, and this will not do. Those of you who persist in this will go to a very dark place. And then they said those of you who repent – who truly repent – might be able to go home before the war is over”. And then I was as meat line, and then I was out with a message and just send it out and get it in the pipeline – okay here’s an order – no fink releases – give it a bad name – no fink releases, we all go home together, and that was the law up there..  And down south it was entirely different. I’m not saying they are inferior – there is a great book out there that covers both sides. The South Vietnamese VC would release people periodically – just on a whim or the idea there was some sort of political feedback or something, but up there, everyone was locked in.  We had, over time, because people would break away, they had three – twelve men left – each in three man segments. And I was going to prosecute them when I got home and the JAG office said the statute of limitations has run out on that…but I did prosecute a couple of other officers. 

 

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you finally this question, Admiral. When it was all said and done, back to the 1992 election, do you think in the final analysis you would have been, in fact, a good vice president of the United States?

ADMIRAL JAMES STOCKDALE: I think so. I think so. I've done nothing but manage - I mean, I'm - yeah, I think I would have been surprisingly good, because I call them like I see them, and I think I'm fair-minded, and I have a good understanding of international law, and all the other accoutrements that are necessary for military decision-making at a high level, and Ike didn't do too badly, did he?

JIM LEHRER: No. Admiral, thank you. That’s terrific….

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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)

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Governor (MA)

Geraldine Ferraro (D),
Former U.S. Rep. (NY)

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Jack Kemp (R),
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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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