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“Good evening. The television and radio stations of the United States and their affiliated stations are proud to provide facilities for a discussion of issues in the current political campaign by the two major candidates for the presidency. The candidates need no introduction. The Republican candidate, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, and the Democratic candidate, Senator John F. Kennedy.”
That was how the moderator, Howard K. Smith of CBS, opened the first televised presidential debate from the studios of WBBM-TV, Chicago, on September 26, 1960.
“Good evening from the Ford Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. I’m Jim Lehrer of The NewsHour on PBS, and I welcome you to the first of the 2008 presidential debates between the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain of Arizona, and the Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.”
That was how I began the first McCain-Obama debate on September 26, 2008nearly fifty years later.
There have been thirty-five nationally televised presidential and vice presidential debates, counting that first in 1960 and the last four in 2008.
All the moderators have been broadcast journalists except oneChicago Sun-Times editor James Hoge in 1976. There have been several repeaters: Howard K. Smith of CBS and ABC, Edwin Newman of NBC, Barbara Walters of ABC, Bernard Shaw of CNN, Bob Schieffer of CBS, my PBS colleague Gwen Ifill, and I account for twenty-one of the thirty-five moderating assignments.
Our “Good evenings” have remained roughly the sameexcept for the top billing going to the geography.
“Good evening from the Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.”
“Good evening from the Bushnell Theater in Hartford, Connecticut.”
“Good evening from the University of Miami Convocation Center in Coral Gables, Florida.”
The first of my greetings was for a 1988 debate between Vice President George H. W. Bush and Governor Michael Dukakis in Winston-Salem.
That was when I got my introduction to the terrors and triumphs of moderating presidential debates, an experience I have sometimes compared to walking down the blade of a knife.
At Winston-Salem, it actually started before the debate itself.
I was closeted behind a closely guarded conference room door with my three debate colleaguesPeter Jennings of ABC, Annie Groer of the Orlando Sentinel, and John Mashek of The Atlanta Constitutionto discuss our questions for Bush and Dukakis. This was before the coming of the single-moderator format; the standard arrangement was a moderator plus panelists.
Jennings, anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight, had an act of provocation on his mind.
He urged the four of us to forget the rules that had been agreed upon between the candidates and the Commission on Presidential Debates. We should publiclyin front of the whole worldinvite Bush and Dukakis to take on each other directly with no time limits on questions, answers, or anything else.
I said we couldn’t do that. We had given our word to follow the rules of the debate. Not to do so, I insisted in my most righteous tone, would be dishonorable, among other things.
Annie Groer and John Mashek agreed. Jennings quickly went along, with grace and professionalism.
Also in Winston-Salem, my wife, Kate, helped with some much needed pre-debate personal perspective that remains with me to this day.
In the hotel, as we were leaving for the debate, I came down with a bad case of nerves. I whined to Kate about how terrible the pressure was on me.
She said, quite calmly, “If it’s bad for you, think what it must be like for those two candidatesone bad move and they lose the presidency of the United States.”
But I was still left with the pre-debate anxieties that have been with me in every one of the ten presidential and vice presidential debates I have moderated since. I soon learned that dealing with nerves is the key to being able to function effectively as a moderator. My guess is that there are surgeons, classroom teachers, and short-order cooks among the huge crowds of other people who know exactly what I’m talking about. Possibilities of pleasure and satisfaction, horror and failure, await everyone who performs.
The incredibly high stakes are what magnify it all in presidential debates. Candidates and their attendants have only one overriding purposeto win the election to be the most powerful person in the world. But others, including most in the serious press and political science worlds, see debates as decisive opportunities to inform and educate the voters about whom to grant such power.
The critical space between those two very different purposes is the battleground on which all combat occurs.
“Ugly, I don’t like ’em.”
That’s how George H. W. Bush categorizes his debate experience.
“Well, partially I wasn’t too good at ’em. Secondly, there’s some of it’s contrived. Show business. You prompt to get the answers ahead of time. Now this guy, you got Bernie Shaw on the panel and here’s what he’s probably gonna ask you. You got Leslie Stahl over here and she’s known to go for this and that, I want to be sure I remember what Leslie’s going to ask and get this answer. . . . There’s a certain artificiality to it, lack of spontaneity to it. And, I don’t know, I just felt uncomfortable about it.”
That exchange was one of the many I have had with the candidates after their presidential and vice presidential debates. The interviews, done over a period of twenty years, began as an oral history project with the Commission on Presidential Debates. Portions were later used in Debating Our Destiny, a two-hour PBS documentary that was first broadcast in 2000.
George W. Bush’s view differed from his father’s.
“I think it’s useful for people [to] watch and see how a person they don’t know stands up and answers questions and deals with the thrusts and parries of the debate. I actually also think you can learn what the person really believes. I think they are very useful.”
Ronald Reagan was also positive. “The people have a right to know all they can in comparison to make a decision,” he said. “If the debate is concentrated on the major issues and the views of the two individuals on those issues, then it is of service to the people.”
Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, in their separate interviews, said debates help make for better candidates.
“I think they force us to prepare,” said Dole. “They force us to think about issues we maybe hadn’t focused onthey force us to think ahead.”
Clinton went even further: “Even if these debates don’t change many votes and, you know, normally both sides do well enough so they can avoid any lasting damage, but having to do them and knowing that if you blow it, they will change a lot of votes, forces people who wish to be president to do things that they should do. And I am convinced that the debates I went through, especially those three in 1992, actually helped me to be a better president.”
George H. W. Bush, after further thought, favorably compared debates to competitive athletics, which he said he always loved. There was an adrenaline flow during debates similar to that triggered by sportsparticularly tennis.
Jimmy Carter also offered a sports comparison: “I think I did go in as though it was an athletic competition, or a very highly charged competitive arrangement.”
So did Gerald Ford, who said, “I had that experience many times playing football for the University of Michigan, and that was my attitude before that first debate. I felt comfortable with the positions I would take, and I was anxious to get into the ball game.”
Al Gore, Ross Perot, and Lloyd Bentsen were the only candidates missing from our postmortem debate interviews.
Bentsen, the 1988 Democratic nominee for vice president, very much wanted to talk to us but was by then too ill from a stroke to do so. With former vice president Gore, we tried every ploy we could think of and went through every channel we could find, but he declined to discuss his several debate experiences as a vice presidential and presidential candidate. So did Ross Perot, who as an independent made it to the presidential debates against President George H. W. Bush and Governor Bill Clinton in 1992.
In addition to Bob Dole and former presidents Reagan, Ford, Carter, Clinton, and both Bushes, I also questioned former vice presidents Mondale, Quayle, and Cheney, plus John Kerry, John Anderson, Geraldine Ferraro, Jack Kemp, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards, and James Stockdale.
Most of the conversations concentrated on Major Moments, as they’ve come to be calledhappenings during specific debates that drew the most attention and seemed destined to find their way into political histories.
Presidential debates are the ultimate Rashomon exercises, of course. Each participant remembers a debate performance through the prism, emotional as well as political, of his or her own place at the podiumor table, chair, camera, or microphone.
That goes for those who ask the questions as well as those who answer them.
The first ever nationally televised debate moderator, Howard K. Smith, spoke mostly as an observer/reporter when recalling his 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debate experience. In a 1996 memoir, Events Leading Up to My Death, he wrote, “Having the two appear live, side by side, answering the same questions, was a welcome innovation. But it was not much of a debate. Because the reporters on the panel were not allowed to pose follow-up questions, both candidates shamelessly slid by questions rather than answering them.”
Smith said it was obvious from the moment the two entered the Chicago studio that Nixon realized he should never have agreed to the confrontation. He was the incumbent vice president and much better known than Kennedy. Appearing together would only elevate Kennedy’s status.
Also, Nixon had been in the hospital and was pale, Smith said. “I offered a makeup expert, but he refused and allowed an aide merely to dust a little powder on his face, which made him paler. He was downcast; he knew it was a mistake.”
Kennedy, meanwhile, “entered the studio looking like a young athlete come to receive his wreath of laurel.” Addison’s disease had added a tan tint to his skin, and the steroids he took for back pain had caused him to fill out.
Smith said of Kennedy, “He later told me he won the election that night.”
That is also the conventional wisdom among many political historians, keyed to the fact it had more to do with looks than words. Neither Kennedy nor Nixon opened up any major differences over policy that dominated their campaign before or during the debate. Politically, both were runningand mostly seenas no-boat-rattling centrists.
More than one hundred million Americans followed the debate, and those who listened to it on the radio thought Nixon had won.
Nixon didn’t go so far as to say that the perception of the first debate cost him the election, but he hinted at it. He wrote of the 1960 campaign in his 1962 memoir, Six Crises:
“I paid too much attention to what I was going to say and too little to how I would look.”
Those are words to live by that a few post-1960 candidates have ignored at their peril.
The negotiated agreement for the four Kennedy-Nixon events set future patterns for formats and almost everything else about the debates until 1992including the negotiations themselves.
As a matter of history, even Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas tangled over the specifics of the subject, the number, and some of the details of their seven famous Illinois debates on slavery in 1858. They did their pre-debate negotiating through the mail and surrogatesnot that much differently than the way it still happens.
In 1960, surrogates for Nixon and Kennedy wrestled with the debate sponsorsthe commercial television networksover the room temperature, the use of notes, and the lighting, among other things. The biggest hurdles were over the number of debates and the selection of the journalist moderators and panelists. Kennedy wanted more debates than Nixon; the networks wanted only TV/radio questioners, while the candidates insisted on bringing print people into the mix, as well.
Kennedy and Nixon stood behind podiums, made opening and closing statements, and, in between, answered questions that were solely the work of the individual panelists. No questions or specific topics were cleared ahead of time with anyonemost particularly the candidates.
Debate formats differed little through the years between 1960 and 1992, the major variables confined to answer time limits and the addition of a live audience. The four Kennedy-Nixon exchanges were all in silent television studios.
In 1988, moderators were allowed to move beyond traffic-cop and follow-up duties to ask their own opening questions of each candidate. I was the first moderator to do so.
The October 15, 1992, debate among President George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot changed everything. For the first time, candidates would answer questions created and asked by would-be voters, not professional journalists, in a town hall–type format. Carole Simpson of ABC News moderated that event at the University of Richmond, Virginia.
The opening half of the October 19, 1992, ninety-minute Bush-Clinton-Perot event at East Lansing, Michigan, which I moderated, was the first presidential debate with no major time restraintsno two-minute answers and one-minute responses. That followed a week after the raucous vice presidential debate among Dan Quayle, Al Gore, and James Stockdale, which featured a five-minute discussion period about each issue. Hal Bruno of ABC moderated that one.
Those debates also marked the end of the journalist-panel format. Simpson, Bruno, and I all sat alone at the moderator’s table at our respective events. Every debate sincein 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2008has had either a sole moderator or a participatory “town hall” audience.
The only other new wrinkle has been to have the candidates do at least one of their debates seated at a table rather than standing at podiums. During the George W. Bush years, all vice presidential debates were seated, a pattern that began at the insistence of Dick Cheney, as the Republican candidate for vice president in 2000 and again as the incumbent four years later.
While the 1992 wide-open “experiment”a podium debateappeared to work at the time, it has yet to return in any future debate. According to those involved in negotiations since, most candidates, each in their own way, choose not to take what is considered “the risk” of an open format.
There were no presidential debates for sixteen years after the Kennedy-Nixon four. Their return almost immediately proved that some risks cannot be negotiated away.