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by Craig R. Smith


October 06, 2004

The 37-page agreement between the Kerry and Bush camps over the format of the first presidential debate set off screams of "foul." The rules were tighter than Madonna's girdle. However, Jim Lehrer's superb job of moderating, the networks' decision to avoid some rules, and the candidates' spirited responses provided us with one of the best debates in history. Nonetheless, as the history of presidential debates reveals, caution is in order.

The first real presidential debate took place in 1960. It is the root cause for the rule-making we see today. On the day of the debate, everything went wrong for Nixon. He banged his sore knee on the car door when he arrived at the studio and nearly fainted. Despite the fact that he was pale from a hospital stay, he refused make up and looked ghostly compared to his well-tanned opponent. The cathode tube in the black and white camera emphasized Nixon's five o'clock shadow. The wall behind Nixon had been freshly painted so that his suit did not blend into it. So throughout the debate, Nixon could be seen sniffing about with an odd expression on his face. Nixon spoke to Kennedy, like a good debater; Kennedy spoke to the American audience, like well advised candidate. Nixon sweated like a pig in August; Kennedy was a cool as cucumber. The result: those watching on television judged Kennedy the winner; those listening on radio judged Nixon the winner. The ratings of the next debates were only half of what the first one got. When Nixon lost the election by 112,000 votes, the first debate got the blame.

Because of what happened to Nixon, there was not another presidential debate until 1976, when we wrote a challenge to Jimmy Carter into President Ford's acceptance speech. Behind in the polls and trying to break through Carter's transcendent rhetoric ("I will never lie to you."), President Ford sought to debate to "real" issues. The strategy worked. After the first debate, Ford was back in the race, just like Kerry is now. Unfortunately, there was a second debate, in which the president asserted that Poland was not under Soviet domination. He meant that in their hearts, the Polish people were not dominated by the Soviets. However, the miscue ushered memories of other Ford blunders and his physical clumsiness. And the election slipped away.

Ford sacrificed himself for a good cause. As the first sitting president to call for a debate, he institutionalized the practice. In 1980, as Reagan began to catch up with Carter in the polls, Carter's people were forced to debate Reagan one time late in the campaign to end the threat of defeat. A panel of five liberal college debate coaches and the vast majority of the public deemed Reagan the winner. He won the election in a landslide.

No one would ever agree to only one debate again. That rule also saved Reagan in his 1984 race. Over coached, searching for words, and repeating the same answers over and over -- does this sound familiar -- Reagan lost the first debate to Mondale. Luckily, there was second in which Nancy Reagan insisted that "they let Ronnie be Ronnie" and he won.

In 1988, I helped coach Dan Quayle for his vice presidential debate with Lloyd Bentson. Quayle practiced against the redoubtable Senator Bob Packwood three times, and held his own. But when Quayle walked onto the stage for the big event, his eyes widened and his tongue thickened. In the practice debates, he had been asked, "What would you do if the president were assassinated?" In the real debate, he was asked, "What would you do if the president were incapacitated?" Invoking the 25th Amendment is a complicated operation. So Quayle tried to dodge the question by comparing himself to John Kennedy, and the rest is history.

Luckily for the Republican ticket that year Michael Dukakis failed to show any passion when answering a hypothetical question about the rape of his wife. His opponent, George W. Bush, dubbed Dukakis the "ice man." That sound bite took hold, and Dukakis was buried in the ensuing election.

There are many other reasons for caution in negotiating tight rules for a debate. In 1992, Carol Simpson of ABC News hosted a town hall debate like the one coming up in St. Louis in which she admonished Bush, Clinton, and Perot to avoid personal attacks. Bush had planned to launch one. No wonder he looked at his watch to see when the torture would be over.

The same pundits who are complaining about the debate format are the people who jump on minutia, misstatements, odd camera shots, sighs, and the slightest make-up flaw instead of talking about the candidates' stands on the issues. They bear much of the responsibility for the candidates attempting to control the format and the focus of those ubiquitous network cameras. We are lucky to have any joint appearances at all and particularly fortunate that the first debate was such gem in terms of clarifying each candidates' position on the issues.

Craig R. Smith
Long Beach, CA.


Note: Craig Smith is a former speechwriter for President Gerald Ford. Dr. Smith is the Director of the Center for First Amendment Studies at California State University, Long Beach, CA.


Note: Comments published on Viewpoints are the opinions of the writer
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Sitnews.



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