Who Gives a Hoot : At Tonight's Debate, Certainly the Live Audience, Which Is Becoming as Big a Player as the Candidates

Times Staff Writer

"Two-four-six-eight, who do we appreciate? Our guy! Our guy! Our guy!"

Dan Quayle was miffed.

In the last week, in cities throughout the South, the Republican vice presidential candidate has huffed angrily that someone had been "sneering at the notion of an entire world envying our nation."

That someone was not Lloyd Bentsen. It was not Michael Dukakis.

It was the live, in-studio audience at last week's vice presidential debate, partisans who snickered at Quayle's remark about an America that prospers by making Hondas here to ship back to Japan, an America that is "the envy of the world."

Of course, they snickered at Bentsen too. In fact they sniggered, hooted, groaned or cheered at least 15 times, rowdy enough on three occasions to be scolded to silence like eraser-throwing fourth-graders.

So who are those guys? And why are they behaving like they're on "Family Feud"?

It is no mistake. This is not an audience that accidentally wandered into the wrong arena on the way to a cockfight.

A Crucial Difference

What is different is that more debate tickets than ever before--at least two-thirds--are in the hands of the campaigns, officials say. (A dozen years ago, when televised debates started up again, at most about 25% of the tickets were given to both candidates combined.)

And some of the people in the hall, in the latest debate especially, became so ardently partisan and so vocal that one expert likened them to a sitcom laugh-track, an intrusive punctuation that, almost as much as what the debaters say, can govern how millions of TV viewers--and voters--perceive the debates,

Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), who has attended both debates, calls them "hooters," whatever their political stripe, "uncharitable, unsociable oafs up there whooping and snorting . . . a bunch of people who wanted to mess things up."

There is no indication that tonight will be much more sedate, when Pauley Pavilion--site of a lot of partisan conflict of a different sort--hosts the second and last presidential debate. During the first, in a university chapel in North Carolina, the bell had scarcely rung when both Dukakis and George Bush came out swinging their one-liners: Bush, "the Joe Isuzu" of candidates, and Dukakis, offering answers "as murky as Boston Harbor."

Boo. Hiss.

Tonight, as millions watch on television, about 2,000 guests--two-thirds of them campaign contributors, staff, volunteers and boosters--will observe the debate from seats on opposite sides of the aisle, "kind of like a wedding," Dukakis spokesman Mark Gearan says.

They are family and friends, fellow politicians, "fat cat" campaign donors, and workers and volunteers there as a reward, "in part" a thank-you for support or money, Bush and Dukakis staffers say.

A Bit of Recognition

A debate ticket is "one nice way you can recognize people who've helped you," says Commission on Presidential Debates executive director Janet Brown.

"Not a great deal of the general public goes to these things," says Robert Neuman of the commission, which distributes many of its tickets to local officials, civic leaders and debate volunteers. (The newly formed bipartisan commission took over as sponsor when the nonpartisan League of Women Voters, after 12 years, washed its hands of the debates after the campaigns insisted on ground rules the league said "perpetrate a fraud on the American public.")

One debate insider said that in 1984, some Bush staffers wooed contributors on the promise of debate tickets that would put them "next to Mrs. Bush," only to find to their pique that their allotted seats were scattered throughout the auditorium, which provoked much moving around of chairs.

For the campaigns, the benefit of a partisan audience is obvious. "It certainly provides a good buoy for the candidates," says Neuman, who explained that each lectern is canted, and the candidate can look past the panel of questioners toward "his" cheering section.

"I think they derive great strength and support from having friends there," Gearan said.

So what's the problem? What's a campaign without cheerleaders and flag factories? What's wrong with a little team spirit?

'It's Become Sport'

Because, Peggy Lampl says, this is supposed to be a debate, not a rally. "It's become sport, in the competitiveness. And everybody's waiting for the quarterback to be intercepted or throw for the touchdown. It's 'Meet the Press' formats with cheering sections," says Lampl, former executive director of the League of Women Voters, who steered the 1976 debates--the first since the famous Kennedy-Nixon encounters of 1960, which were held in a TV studio with no audience.

The persona of "audience" can become the third debater, at times making news with the candidates. News "bites" from the last debate--often showing Bentsen telling Quayle, "You're no Jack Kennedy"--usually include the storm of audience cheers.

The intrusion of audience reaction is more serious, some believe, than a mere distraction to the speaker, or a boorish footnote to the solemn purpose of a national debate.

Before the "spin doctors," those campaign analysts who rush to puff up their man's performance afterward . . . before the instant analysis by network anchors . . . there is now a "spin audience," guiding TV viewer reaction even as the debate unfolds. That is the opinion of one academic authority, who halfway through the first debate felt she "just wanted to get rid of the audience."

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Texas professor of speech communication who writes on presidential debates and modern political advertising, likens the raucous instant responses to TV sitcom laugh tracks, "a cueing device to tell us when something was funny, when something was well-done."

Likewise, in the debates, cheers and jeers--whether spontaneous or choreographed--can do the work for the TV viewer and "tell you what to think," Jamieson says. Loud reactions "spike attention" for the viewer, distorting, even preempting his own judgments. "You ask yourself when you hear applause, what did I hear that warrants applause? And you remember it."

Allows Manipulation "There are millions of people watching and here's a (candidate) saying something he thinks is serious, and they laughed. And that's not what debates are for," said Simpson acidly.

"That's why you should not have partisans in the audience," says Jamieson. "It makes it subject to political manipulation," and both sides quickly learned that the crowd "was an important political element, and they both tried hard to control it."

Sure enough, from the noise, Lampl says, "you could have sworn the Democrats had 400 more (supporters) than the Republicans."

At one point the derision of Quayle grew so intense that some Democrats turned to shush the "hooters," evidently fearing a backlash of sympathy for the beleaguered Indiana senator.

Judging from the two debates to date, Texas Christian University emeritus professor Paul Boller Jr., author of a history of presidential campaigns, found that sometimes the candidate "hadn't made any particularly good point, yet there came applause." And "to the TV audience that would give the impression he had made a good point whether he had or not."

A live audience, says Boller, "does lighten things up, but on the other hand the audience can mislead the televiewer (and) become part of the show."

An expert of a different sort--James Burrows, co-producer and director of "Cheers" and other shows filmed before a studio audience--found the debate "more like a Broadway play than a studio sitcom." The candidates seemed torn between the vast, invisible TV audience and the warm live crowd, "playing to the American public but holding for laughs in the auditorium." And as for the audience, says Burrows, "it sounded more like a church revival meeting to me."

Believes League presidential debate coordinator Vicky Harian, it was a "devolution" from earlier debates, and certainly from the pioneering Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.

Lincoln and Douglas met seven times in their race for an Illinois Senate seat. Lincoln lost the election but nationwide newspaper accounts of the debates put him on the fast track to the White House.

3-Hour Sessions

Those outdoor sessions lasted three hours; each man spoke at least a half-hour at a time, weaving long, often abstruse arguments. Hundreds came to hear, and some brought signs and banners. One illustration showed a man with a placard that read "Edgar County for the Tall Sucker"-- sucker being a mid-19th-Century term for an Illinoisan.

But the crowds were quiet and attentive. Now, 130 years later, the rah-rahs seem to emphasize the scoreboard element, not the informational aspect, of debate. "What are we going to do, have applause meters on the stage?" demanded Simpson.

The first broadcast debate, in 1960, was only that: broadcast. No studio audience took the measure of Nixon and Kennedy.

For three elections thereafter, neither incumbent, Lyndon Johnson or Nixon, took to the lectern. In 1976, though, President Gerald Ford agreed to debate Jimmy Carter, and the debate was reborn under the auspices of the League, which is anxious to point out shortcomings of the current format.

At first, it was the campaigns who did not want audiences. The League insisted on them, partly because "we're having a debate not in a TV studio but in a community," says Harian, and partly because a live audience certified the debate as a bona fide news event that could skirt equal-time legal thickets.

Each candidate received about 10% of the tickets. "We didn't want cheering sections for the candidates," says Lampl. The remainder went to local officials, civic groups, students and League volunteers. As late as 1984, Harian says, seats were scattered to disperse any claque effect.

Except for an audio failure of 27 minutes and 2 seconds during a Ford-Carter debate, things went well, Lampl recalls. In 1976, Republican vice presidential candidate Robert Dole's stinging quips drew a few moments of laughter, and Ford's remark about Poland not being under Soviet domination pulled a gasp from the crowd.

By 1980, Ronald Reagan's tart jibe at Carter, "There you go again," elicited a sure-fire crowd response, and in 1984, his scripted sally about not holding opponent Mondale's age against him won laughs even as he drew mixed reviews on his performance as a debater of issues.

'A Pep Rally'

And when vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro debated George Bush in 1984, her supporters staged "what amounted to a pep rally in the back" of the hall, says Harian, chanting "Go Gerry go!"

"The invited audience is important," says Harian. "We are not saying, do it in a television studio--that would be a sterile approach. It is political theater, you do want reaction . . . but not canned, automatic reaction."

'It's Just Spontaneous'

Bob Burkett was in North Carolina, and says that sometimes you just can't help yourself when "the stakes are so high."

The senior vice president at Interscope Group in Los Angeles is, like Interscope owner Ted Field, an important Dukakis booster. And "as a highly partisan person, you're hanging on every word, swinging with every punch," and "Sometimes it's just spontaneous: somebody says something that makes you laugh or makes you clap, 400 people do that . . . and then the other side feels compelled to respond."

Mickey Kantor, prominent local lawyer-lobbyist and Democratic politico, has his tickets for tonight but might stay home to see it the way most Americans will see it and judge it.

"I think it's more instructional to watch on TV." In the hall one misses nuances like the candidates' expressions, "and whether someone is projecting . . . someone who may be very good in a hall in the heat of battle may come over too strong or too brittle or too aggressive on TV."

It all puts Sen. Simpson in mind of a bit of political pump-priming back in 1972, when Vice President Spiro Agnew was running for re-election and came to Casper, Wyo.

An Agnew staffer pulled Simpson aside and confided, " 'About 20 minutes into the vice president's talk, a group of protesters is coming in that upper door of that third tier.'

"And they came. And as they came in Agnew suddenly stopped and said, 'Think of people like that interrupting the vice president of the United States.' And I thought to myself, 'Oooh, that ain't the way it's supposed to be done.' "

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