There were no clear winners and two clear losers: George Bush and Geraldine Ferraro, the two vice presidential candidates whose debate in Philadelphia last night came across on live television as graceless and sour.
Ferraro was compelling to watch in that as the Democratic nominee she was the first woman ever to be one of the debaters in such a contest. She made history, but she also made a poor television impression. Her voice is harsh and monotonous, she slurs words and mutters, and she seemed reluctant to tear her eyes away from whatever was placed on the podium in front of her. Throughout the campaign, the camera has repeatedly caught Ferraro glued to a script, rarely able to sustain a thought while looking up into the eyes of the audience. What was she glued to last night?
As for Bush, he seemed unnecessarily crabby and cantankerous, reinforcing his image as something of a hothead, answering many questions with a rant rather than a statement. His evasiveness on a question about the Reagan administration's poor record on civil rights was certainly imaginative, though. "We think of civil rights as something like crime in your neighborhoods," Bush said. He said he thought interest rates were a civil rights issue as well.
His opponent may have reached her low point during the discusssion of terrorists, of whom she said, "They're going to do crazy things and you just don't know what's going to happen." The language seemed too flippant for such a deadly subject.
Ferraro's strongest moment came during the second half of the debate, after Bush attempted to lecture her on international relations. Looking up for once, Ferraro said, "I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy," and further rebuked Bush, "Please don't categorize my answers, either."
There were times when Ferraro gained a definite advantage merely by being the calm after one of Bush's wild oratorical storms. This may be what led ABC News White House correspondent Sam Donaldson to say in post-debate analysis, "We have just seen a debate between Mr. Emotional and Ms. Cool." Not only did neither candidate look presidential, however; neither even managed to look so much as vice presidential. Heck, Frank Perdue can manage that.
For the record, a one-hour ABC News poll announced by Ted Koppel on the "Nightline" program found that 42 percent of those polled thought Bush had won the debate, 33 percent gave it to Ferraro and the rest were undecided.
About the only question that dealt directly with Ferraro's status as the first woman vice presidential candidate of a major party was from reporter Robert Boyd, who asked her if the Soviets might "take advantage" of her "simply because you are a woman." Ferraro answered in essence that she could push the buttons that launch missiles as firmly as a man could -- a response that seemed unnecessarily blunt and coarse.
There were also such welcome lighter moments as those provoked by questions to both candidates about their troubles with the Internal Revenue Service. "I have hired a marvelous accountant," Ferraro said. "I'd like to get his name and phone number," Bush said a short time later. "I warn you, he's expensive," said Ferraro, carrying the joke too far. One wonders, as well, how funny a low-income family in Gary, Ind., might have found this exchange.
Still, there was a certain appealing candor to Bush's plea that on the matter of his income tax, "I think I paid too much. I'd like to get some money back."
As the evening droned on there was talk, not always particularly comprehensible, of Lyndon B. Johnson and white-tailed antelopes, of the inevitable family-that-lives-near-a-toxic-dump, of the almost equally inevitable Eleanor Roosevelt, and of Bush's indignation that Walter Mondale had accused him of having a chauffeur, when in fact the Secret Service drives him to work.
A gloves-off squabble marked by excesssive flailing, the vice presidential debate -- sponsored by the League of Women Voters and held in Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Hall -- made last Sunday's presidential debate look positively majestic in its rhetoric by comparison. There was a dignity to it, wasn't there? A sense of class about it. Thus did a vagrant thought cross the mind of at least one viewer recoiling from Bush and Ferraro last night: what about the possibility of a Reagan-Mondale ticket? At least it would prevent either of these two from becoming president.
Bush looked forceful and made good use of his hands in gesturing during his remarks, though he kept thumping the podium and thus producing audible bumps that sounded like new sets were being constructed backstage. Bush wore a dark suit and a solid red necktie.
Ferraro wore a tweed gray jacket over a tan blouse. Good colors for her. Tony Verdi, the NBC veteran who directed the pool coverage of the debate, said just before it began from the control trailer outside the hall that Ferraro tried on "several outfits" during the rehearsal earlier that afternoon before settling on the one she wore. Verdi said Bush did not try on more than one tie.
Once more Dan Rather of CBS News took pains to advise viewers at the outset that the spectacle was not really a debate but merely "what the League of Women Voters is presenting as and calling a debate." The networks would much prefer to stage the debates themselves rather than to cover them as news events produced by others, and the debates would be better if they did.
NBC's Tom Brokaw, meanwhile, took note of the fact that "a small riser" had been installed behind Ferraro's podium to maker her stature equal to Bush's, at least on camera.
Sander Vanocur of ABC News, occasionally with a slightly sickened look on his face, was the moderator of the vice presidential debate last night. Vanocur was one of the questioners at a Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, but there was probably little about last night's tacky scrap to remind him of good old days.
The leaders of last night's fundraising dinner for the United Negro College Fund Inc. put their respect for the office of the presidency above any disagreement with his policies and gave President Reagan what he himself called a "heart-warming reception."
Minutes after the president's brief appearance and remarks, Henry Ponder, the president of Fisk University, mulled over Reagan's reception. "Ronald Reagan is president of this country. I am a citizen of this country and am always glad to be in his company. We respect the presidency," said Ponder. "It is unfortunate that this is happening within the last 30 days before the election."
A smattering of the 12,000 guests at the mirrored tables in the Sheraton-Washington Ballroom remained seated when the president arrived. And an additional number remained seated when he left. But the president received hearty applause when he quoted the late Martin Luther King Jr., mentioned the late Gen. Daniel (Chappie) James and his own honorary membership in the famed Tuskegee Institute Flyers.
"He has used the stroke of his pen to issue an executive order on black colleges and that gives us great hope," said Christopher Edley, the Executive Director of the UNCF. "Are we satisfied? Of course not. We have wishes not yet granted, of course. But we thank you for what you have already done in this period of austerity."
Despite an increase of 11 percent in the appropriations for the historically black colleges, some are still struggling, and many minority students on both the lower and middle income scales have been strapped by the restrictions on student financial aid.
"The administration has done fairly well, but not as well as we had hoped. When you talk about cuts in financial aid, and students see that in the paper, they decide not to come, but it turns out that we received the money," said Ponder, citing his experience as president of Benedict College. He added that aggressive recruitment had made up for some of the problems caused by funding worries.
The dinner, which marked UNCF's 40th anniversary and which raised approximately $100,000 toward the local goal of $1 million for this year, also honored six individuals that Delegate Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.) described as having "labored in the vineyard of public service."
The list included banker Leo Bernstein, TV anchor J.C. Hayward, physician Charles Epps, Secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret Heckler, IBM executive Kent Cushenberry and Warner-Lambert Co. president Joseph Williams.
Not only were several local corporations sponsors of the evening, but national companies, such as McDonalds Corp. and the Adolph Coors Co., also helped underwrite some of the dinners' cost and contributed to the fund-raising drive.
Near the end of the night, the dinner chairman, Effi Barry, the wife of the mayor and a consultant who represents Coors, thanked the labor union leaders who were present. Several members of the AFL-CIO had recently criticized Coors' sponsorship of a party for Mayor Marion Barry. "We feel that whatever your differences," she said, "you cannot hold this cause hostage."