Hey, What Could Go Wrong?
Can a debate make or break a candidacy? You bet. With this year's first presidential debate on Friday, here's a look at goofs and gaffes of face-offs past, taken from interviews with senior campaign officials conducted by the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. The excerpts were selected by program chairman Russell L. Riley.
Stuart Spencer on President Gerald Ford's 1976 gaffe proclaiming that there was "no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe":[I] was sitting next to [National Security Adviser] Brent Scowcroft in the holding room watching this. I heard [Ford] say it, and I didn't think anything about it. Brent, in his style, punched me and said, "You've got a problem." I said, "What's the problem?" He said, "What Jerry just said about Poland. He means 'emotionally.' . . . There are x-number of divisions in Poland." . . . I said, "How many is that?" He said, "Some 240,000." I go, "Oh God, these are Russians, 240,000 Russians, and they don't have control of Poland?"
I go out. By this time, [White House Chief of Staff Dick] Cheney and I were spastic. We get back to the house. Henry [Kissinger] is already there, secretary of state. He's saying, "You were wonderful, Mr. President. You did a wonderful job." He gets through, and Dick and I say, "Goddam, what are you talking about, Henry?" . . .
We get on the plane the next morning, we're beating [Ford] up, and he says, "What do you expect me to do, go out and say I was wrong?" We said, "Yes." . . . I think we came within two inches of getting canned, Cheney and I. . . . [Finally,] after two . . . news time frames, he came out and made some statement straightening the whole thing out.
Peter Wallison on Sen. Robert Dole's controversial reference to "Democrat wars" in the 1976 vice presidential debate: I had traveled with [Dole] for three or four months. In these little sessions that we would have in people's living rooms . . . he would occasionally say that "These are Democrat wars, and I sustained a wound" and so forth. Before the debate with [Democratic vice-presidential candidate Walter] Mondale, I wrote down . . . a long list of things I wanted to talk to him about. I wrote down "Democrat wars." . . . He was having his makeup put on just before he was to go out. I had my list of things, and I was checking them off and saying, "Now senator, this is what Alan Greenspan says you should say when they talk about the economy, and this is what Henry [Kissinger] says you should say when -- " Then I had something about "Democrat wars," and I thought, "No, no, no." I skipped over that and went to the next thing, because I just didn't think he would say anything like that [to a national audience]. When he did . . . I just felt like crawling under the table. . . . It was so terrible. And it was my fault in a way. . . .
Politicians live in a kind of a cocoon, because nobody ever says anything negative to them. . . . [Dole was] going to these meetings with all these people who are all very sympathetic to him. . . . Now he's on national television, and he says the same thing, and it's a disaster. Politicians occasionally do this because an unreal world has been created in their minds.
Stuart Eizenstat on Jimmy Carter's preparation for the 1976 presidential debate: [The] briefing books were sent down to [Carter], and . . . he read every single page and corrected typographical errors and grammatical mistakes in what had to be, I would say, easily two hundred pages of written material. . . . As the time got closer, I went to Hamilton Jordan and said, "You know, we've got to talk about these things. We can't let the man just read this enormous briefing book and go in and wing it."
[After] some pulling and tugging, [Carter] agreed to see us in Plains. I think it was a Saturday or a Sunday. We got down there, and we sat in his living room, and I said, "Governor, we have some questions here, and perhaps what we ought to do is throw some questions at you and let you answer, and then we'll critique it." Oh no, that was not going to be done. He didn't need that. [He] either said or implied that that would be contrived, and that was just not the way he was going to do it. He didn't mind talking through some points, but he was not going to go through any sort of rehearsal. So we talked through it a little bit. I don't think the session lasted more than an hour or so, and that was it. . . .
And then the first debate occurred. His first answer to the first question was as dreadful as one could possibly imagine. It was a softball question about what you would do for the economy to end the recession, and it turned out to be, from my standpoint, a disaster in the sense that there was no clarity. But after that first question, he did amazingly well, and I think more than held his own.
Martin Anderson on prepping Ronald Reagan for the 1980 presidential debates: What usually happened when you presented Reagan with a briefing book is that he'd thank you very much for it -- "It's really terrific" -- and he'd pick it up, look at it, and then when he was on the plane, he'd put it . . . underneath the chair and never look at it again. Because he didn't do briefing books. It wasn't the way he operated.
The way he did like to operate is what we finally did . . . . [The campaign mocked up] a rough facsimile of the exact debate stage where it would take place. It had the podiums, it had the lights. . . . David Stockman [was selected] to represent the opposing person . . . Four of us would . . . pretend we were the press. We wouldn't tell [Reagan] what kinds of questions we were going to ask him. I remember we came off the plane and just sat down and scribbled about a dozen questions. . . . We did this once before the debate with [independent presidential candidate John] Anderson and once before the debate with Carter. . . .
The deal was to try to ask him the meanest, toughest questions we could think of, to get him furious, to try to stick him. Dick Allen was there asking questions, Alan Greenspan was in there. . . . George Will was in there, sure. . . . Stockman was so good and we were so tough that Reagan got mad. He just got furious. Afterwards, [when] we came out of the debates, especially the one with Anderson, someone asked, "Well, how did it go?" And [Reagan] said, "Hey, after the practice, this was nothing," which was the purpose of the whole thing. Most candidates don't like to do that. They really don't. They hate it.
Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger on how debates are won: You know, all you have to do is hold your own in these things, because nobody wins or loses these debates on points. They do it on perception. Since the press always thinks that Reagan is dumber than the other guy, just by holding his own, Reagan wins . . . [And], of course, thanks to Jimmy Carter . . . saying [in 1980] that he was talking to Amy about nuclear policy -- you don't ordinarily use your teenage daughter to advise you on nuclear policy. . . . I think that we would have won anyway, but we won it a lot more handily because Reagan showed that he could stand up to the president of the United States.
Gerald Rafshoon on Carter's debate strategy in 1980: I'll tell you where our mistake was . . . .We didn't debate [Sen. Edward] Kennedy. . . . [After] all the primaries, Kennedy kept asking for a debate. He wasn't going to get out of the race until there was a debate. . . . Sunday night we had a meeting at the [White House] residence, and Carter says he's not debating. Not worth it, too dangerous, it's not necessary, we've beaten him. . . .That mistake came back to bite us . . . because if we had gotten that over with and proved that Jimmy Carter could debate anybody, even the vanquished, we might have been able to avoid debating Reagan.
Jody Powell on Carter's decision to debate Reagan in 1980: Even though I advocated it at the time, I think we never should have debated Reagan that late [Oct. 28], and that we would have been better off taking the heat . . . . [We] saw several days ahead of the Reagan people that Reagan was in trouble. . . . And when we saw it, we immediately came to the conclusion that they . . . were going to debate . . . . Obviously, a debate was in their interest. Clearly, it was not in ours under those circumstances. We talked about how we might go about avoiding that . . . . We even discussed the idea of issuing an ultimatum and giving them twenty-four hours and hoping that they wouldn't read their polls accurately within that twenty-four-hour period. You know, say, "We've got schedules. We've got places to go and things to do and schedules to plan, and we've asked you over and over, and we're going to ask you one more time, and we want an answer back by noon tomorrow. And after that, forget it." . . . [We] didn't do it because we thought that might probably be a little too cute by half. But either through that device or some other, we shouldn't have debated the guy that late.
Stuart Spencer on Reagan's poor performance in the 1984 Louisville debate against Walter Mondale: Reagan didn't do his homework for that debate. . . . I went to Camp David with the Reagans the weekend before. . . . He had the [briefing] books. We went in the cottage where he stayed, the books went on the credenza.
We spent the next eight hours watching old movies. Most of them were his movies. The next day, I come over, the books are still sitting there. I look at them. I said something off the cuff to him. He didn't react. He was supposed to do his homework at Camp David. He didn't do his homework. He came back, and he got killed. He knows it.
We walked out together back to the hotel. He looked at me and said, "God, I was awful." I said, "Yes. You didn't do your homework." He didn't answer me. . . . It was one of the few times I saw him really lack discipline. Maybe he thought, I'm going to wing it, and I'm going to do all right . . . [In the] next debate [he] did fine. He did his homework, and he was ready. His adrenalin was up, and his competitive nature was up. His humor was up, which is very important with Reagan . . . .