Presidential Candidates Face an Unforgiving TV Spotlight
President Gerald Ford had prepared for the question, may have even rehearsed it with his aides in the family theater at the White House. His Administration, he had meant to say in his second debate with Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter, would “never acquiesce in Soviet domination” of Eastern Europe.
But Ford blew the line when he got on the stage of San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts. And his Great Gaffe of 1976 now probably tops the list of rhetorical goofs of the dozen or so presidential and vice presidential debates of the TV age.
At the tail end of a response to a question about East-West relations and the 1975 Helsinki Agreement, Ford said: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration.”
When panelist Max Frankel of the New York Times interrupted, Ford dug an even deeper hole, saying he didn’t believe Yugoslavs, Romanians and Poles “consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those countries is independent. . . .”
Sometimes, despite all the coaching, encyclopedic briefing books and videotape playbacks, the best-laid preparations and strategies of presidents, would-be presidents and media advisers get blown away.
That possibility of misstep, after all, is part of what draws 100 million or so people to tune in to these presidential debates--as they will again Sunday at 5 p.m. for the first debate between George Bush and Michael S. Dukakis.
Whatever defines perceptions--style, substance or insight into character--voters also want to see who’s presidential.
Nobody would ever look as bad as Vice President Richard Nixon did in that crucial first-ever televised presidential debate in Chicago on Sept. 26, 1960--the first of four debates with Sen. John F. Kennedy, the handsome 43-year-old Democratic nominee.
On the black-and-white screen, before an audience of 70 million, Nixon looked gray. Even his mother in California phoned to ask what was wrong.
His face was drawn. His shirt collar hung at the neck; he was underweight. His suit was baggy and its gray color blended into the gray of the studio backdrop. Five-o’clock shadow was starting to show. He wore no makeup--just Max Factor Lazy Shave, a pancake powder to hide beard growth. And under the heat of 1960-vintage TV lights, Nixon began to sweat.
Nixon was “a very macho person and didn’t want to be looking effeminate with makeup on,” said former Nixon press secretary Herb Klein in a recent interview.
Ted Rogers, Nixon’s media adviser who had been with him since 1950, is still bitter about that first debate. He said he tried to reach Nixon, show him a working model of the debate studio, even take him there, but was “unable to get through the Iron Curtain of (aides H. R.) Haldeman and (John) Ehrlichman. They just isolated him from everybody. Even (secretary) Rose Mary Woods couldn’t get through. I never spent more than a half-hour on the debate with him, face to face, eyeball to eyeball.”
In contrast, there was Kennedy--tanned, confident and bursting with energy. The morning of the debate, recalled television adviser Bill Wilson, he took Kennedy to the studio and “had him just walk around to see what it looked like, to see the room where he was going to wait, where the bathroom was. (I told him) to stand behind the podium, to feel it, shake it, kick it, so he knows it’s his.”
In Theodore White’s landmark campaign book, “The Making of the President 1960,” there is the image of Kennedy that afternoon at a question-and-answer session, with top aides reviewing index cards with digests of the latest data on a dozen or so issues: “The candidate lay on his bed in a white open-necked T-shirt and army suntan pants, and fired questions at his intimates. He held in his hand the fact cards . . . and as he finished each, he sent it spinning off the bed to the floor.”
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communications at the University of Texas and a presidential debates expert, maintains that “Kennedy was much more conscious of television. He sees himself in the television monitor and straightens up. He takes notes. Nixon, in reaction shots, looked shifty-eyed. Actually he was looking at the clock.”
After the first debate, Nixon was brought up to near-normal weight on a milkshake diet, and the TV studios were also cooled some so he would perspire less. Rogers had “all the access I wanted, but by then it was too late.” That first impression took.
By 1976, for the second set of debates between Carter and Ford, there were live audiences and color television and, says Jamieson, “everyone looks better in color. Color gives a three-dimensionality to people.”
Besides, those who debated after 1960 watched replays of the Kennedy-Nixon debates as readily as they viewed themselves and their opponents, as a kind of TV tutorial.
Ironically, Carter, who was presumed the expert on domestic policy, essentially lost the first debate to Ford in Philadelphia. According to a former aide, Carter might have been overconfident and did not bone up enough. He studied briefing books and met with his experts but did not actually rehearse. That substantially changed for the foreign policy debate; in turn, this was Ford’s presumed strong suit and, aides say, he prepared less.
In Philadelphia, the sound system died for 27 minutes--just about time that Carter had begun to hit stride. “He went out there, and stood out there, and it was a whole different world for him,” said Carter pollster Pat Caddell. “As he walked off the stage, he told us he realized he was standing on the same stage with the President. He said he had never even been in the same room with a President. . . . There’s no way to prepare for that.”
How debaters address each other also has significance. In the second vice presidential debate in 1984, George Bush addressed Geraldine Ferraro as Mrs. rather than as Congresswoman.
“Bush deliberately did that in order to play on a stereotype about a woman,” said Jamieson. “When we debriefed his people, they told us academics off the record that he had made a strategic decision (about title). They said Mrs. would sound like a sign of respect to the right people, so it wouldn’t look like a cheap shot against a woman. They knew they weren’t going to win the feminists.”
In the 1980s, debate preparations emerged as full-fledged theater with stand-in opponents.
David Stockman, who would become Reagan’s controversial budget director, played his old boss, Rep. John Anderson (the Independent candidate) in Reagan’s solo first debate in 1980, and a mock Carter for the second debate seven days before the election.
With some much-publicized help of a copy of Carter’s briefing papers, which the Reagan campaign somehow obtained, Stockman and Reagan rehearsed in a garage converted into a TV studio at Wexford--a large estate in Virginia horse country once belonging to President and Mrs. Kennedy--where the Reagans were staying.
Meanwhile at Camp David, Samuel Popkin, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego, was playing Reagan in mock debates the weekend before the Cleveland debate Oct. 28, with top aides and Rosalynn Carter watching:
“My job was to say to Jimmy Carter what Reagan was saying to the American people. Jody Powell (press secretary) played the panel. He asked Carter a question about the economy and Carter gave a fairly nondescript, like he was asleep, campaign answer, that America was strong and healthy or something. And I gave the exact same answer Reagan was to give in the debate. Simply from speeches and press conferences, we predicted what he was going to say.”
Carter was furious when he heard the Reagan words out of Popkin’s mouth.
“There was this incredible flush, and these red spots appeared on Carter’s cheeks,” Popkin added, “and there was this silence in the room. He gave me the presidential stare . . . and I kept going. I thought the Marine guards were going to take me out and break my kneecaps. Finally, Jerry Rafshoon (media adviser) broke the ice with an insulting joke.”
1984, Stockman played Mondale for Reagan’s rehearsals, while Mondale’s friend, Columbia University President Michael Sovern, did Reagan for Mondale.
In the actual first debate Oct. 7, the 73-year-old President, perhaps over-rehearsed and cluttered with statistics, was rambling and tentative, which raised the age issue. The Democratic challenger, who was at once gracious to Reagan himself while turning Reaganisms upside down, came out the clear winner. When Reagan tried that “there you go again” line, Sovern noted, Mondale was “loaded for bear.”
“Remember the last time you said that?” Mondale asked, leaning on the lectern, facing Reagan. “You said it when President Carter said you were going to cut Medicare, and you said ‘Oh no, there you go again, Mr. President.’ And what did you do after the election? You went out and tried to cut $20 billion out of Medicare. . . .”
In the second debate on Oct. 21, Reagan, back in stride, disposed of the age issue with an easy rehearsed hit.
“I will not make age an issue in the campaign,” he said of his 56-year-old opponent. “I am not going to exploit for political issues my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
Doug Conner of the Times Editorial Library contributed to this story.