Memories of Debates Past: Surprises and Stumbles

Memories of Debates Past: Surprises and Stumbles

By Lou Cannon - September 28, 2012

With the debates between President Obama and Mitt Romney just around the corner, viewers should expect the unexpected. Ever since Vice President Richard Nixon squared off against John F. Kennedy on Sept. 26, 1960, in the first televised debate between presidential candidates, surprises in these encounters have been the order of the day.

The surprise of that first Nixon-Kennedy debate, held at WBBM, the CBS affiliate in Chicago, was Nixon’s physical appearance. Sander Vanocur, the only survivor of seven on the stage that day -- the candidates, moderator Howard K. Smith and four reporters -- recalls that Nixon was perspiring and wan.

Vanocur knew that Nixon had been hospitalized for two weeks in August after injuring a knee. What he didn’t know was that Nixon was in pain after banging the knee as he got out of the car that brought him to the studio. Kennedy was fit and tan from campaigning in California; Nixon had lost 20 pounds and his shirt hung loosely on his body.

Both candidates did well on substance, but their appearance mattered more than their answers. The next day Vanocour called Gov. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut, an early JFK supporter, who had heard the debate on a car radio. Ribicoff thought Nixon had won.

So did many others -- including me -- who had listened to the debate rather than seen it. The larger TV audience gave the edge to Kennedy, who surged in the polls afterward. Democratic activist Newton Minow subsequently wrote that JFK told him “more than once” that he would not have won without the debates. As it was, Kennedy’s margin of victory was two-10ths of a percentage point, narrowest of the 20th century.

The next presidential debates in 1976 between President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are remembered for a Ford gaffe that may have cost him the election. Largely forgotten is that Ford bested Carter in their first debate in Philadelphia on Carter’s supposedly strong suite of domestic policy.

The second debate, in San Francisco, was about foreign policy. Ford, who had negotiated with Soviet leaders, was presumed to hold an advantage. If so, he threw it away in response to a question from Max Frankel of The New York Times.

“There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” Ford said, “and there never will be under a Ford administration.”

Frankel, a fair-minded journalist, realized the president knew better and gently gave him a chance to extricate himself with a follow-up question. Ford stubbornly stuck to his guns. It took two days for Ford’s advisers to get him to abandon his ill-advised statement.

Ford had been gaining on Carter in the race, but the San Francisco debate on Oct. 5 broke his momentum. He closed in the last week but fell short. Ford told me later that he’d meant to convey that the Soviets could never conquer the spirit of the Polish people, an unassailable contention. Years later, when the Soviet empire collapsed, Ford quipped he’d merely been premature the night he stumbled in San Francisco.

Then there’s Ronald Reagan, who in two unforgettable debates in 1980 vaulted himself into the White House. Reagan is his party’s hero today, but the Republican establishment tried to prevent him from becoming the GOP nominee in 1980. George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole and Howard Baker, among others, ran against him. Bush won the Iowa caucuses while Reagan coasted.

Iowa awakened Reagan. He campaigned hard in New Hampshire and in a memorable moment in Nashua effectively borrowed a line from a Spencer Tracy movie when a pro-Bush moderator tried to silence him.

“I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green,” said Reagan, mangling the name of the moderator, whose name was Breen, but otherwise carrying the day. My colleague David Broder turned to me and whispered, “Reagan is winning this nomination right now.” So it proved, as Reagan won 29 of 33 contested primaries, then united his party by putting Bush on the ticket.

Facing President Carter, Reagan held a five-point lead in his own poll but trailed in some surveys when the candidates met in Cleveland on Oct. 28, a week before the election, for their only debate. The decisive moment came when Carter accused Reagan of originally opposing Medicare. Reagan fired back: “There you go again,”

Carter was accurate in what he had said, even though Reagan had not espoused that position in years. But he never recovered from Reagan’s riposte and appeared less confident as the debate continued. Reagan’s line was less spontaneous than it seemed. During debate rehearsals Reagan’s advisers had been trying to sharpen his responses on another issue when Reagan came up with the “there you go again” response.

“I think maybe I’ll save it for the debate,” he told the advisers -- and he did. Reagan pulled away from Carter in the final week of the campaign and won an electoral landslide that launched his two-term presidency. 

Lou Cannon, who is traveling in Scotland, has written about the campaign for RealClearPolitics.

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