President Reagan didn't look good, he didn't sound good, and at times during the final debate he wandered about in search of his train of thought. But because he did better than the first round, the analysts are giving him the political edge. If anything, it would seem, the debates are a story of expectations.
In round one, the contender, Walter Mondale, put on a performance that exceeded nearly everyone's expectations. He looked presidential, assured, smiling and fit. He had trained well and it paid off. By contrast, the president -- who has ducked news conferences for months -- looked old and unsure. The American public, which has been so forgiving of the president's factual inadequacies, did a double-take: this was not the man they were used to. The great communicator looked like he was up past his bedtime. The political analysts were cautious at first, but they gave the edge to Mondale. The public was far less kind: by the end of the week the president was slipping in the polls and Mondale had suddenly achieved stature as a heavyweight.
The pressure on Mondale in the second round was for a knockout. The pressure on Reagan was merely to show he had the stamina to last the round. He did, and the sigh of relief from his advisers could be heard from Kansas City to Washington. If he won at all, it was because he lived up to expectations that he would do better.
What is almost tragic, however, is that those expectations weren't very high. He needed to look more like his old self -- which he did -- and he needed to project more confidence -- which he did -- and he needed to show more mastery of the material -- which he did -- although it was hardly dazzling. The instant analysts gave him the highest score not on substance, but on a quip that could have been scripted the day after the first debate was over, and probably was: "I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience."
It was funny, but it hardly answers the question raised so acutely in the first debate: does Reagan have the mental vigor to do the job for four more years?
Mondale did not raise the age issue directly, but he raised it indirectly at every possible turn, questioning the president's competence, leadership, mastery of the subject and ability to take charge. Reagan's handling of questions about a CIA manual outlining political assassination techniques gave Mondale more evidence for his case. Even Reagan hastily admitted he "misspoke" when he referred to a CIA "agency head in Nicaragua," and he hastily put him someplace else "in that area."
Mondale went in for the kill: "A president can't know everything, but a president has to know those things that are essential to his leadership and the enforcement of our laws.
"This manual, several thousands of which were produced, was distributed, ordering political assassinations, hiring of criminals and other forms of terrorism . . . . How can this happen? How can something this serious occur in an administration and have a president of the United States in a situation like this say he didn't know? A president must know these things."
That set up the later exchange on the bombings in Beirut where it is becoming apparent that lack of attention to detail may be getting people killed. Mondale cited a story -- now being denied by the administration -- that the joint chiefs of staff warned the secretary of State that the Marines' barracks were not secure. Five days later 241 American servicemen were blown up. And days before the embassy was bombed, the U.S. government was warned that explosives were on their way.
Reagan's response was startling: "Mr. Mondale should know that the president of the United States did not order the Marines into the barracks. That was a command decision made by the commanders on the spot and based on what they thought was best for the men there."
The commander-in-chief, in other words, was out to lunch.
Mondale's case that the president is not informed and not in charge was made on the spot for him by the president himself -- and it got worse when he shamelessly tried to weasel out of his responsibility by blaming the loss of hundreds of lives on some field commander.
President Reagan fulfilled expectations that he would do better than he had in the first round of the debates. But that wasn't really asking for much. When lives of servicemen and embassy personnel are at stake, voters ought to expect much more. Mondale's case that the president is not informed and not in charge was made on the spot for him by the president himself -- and it got worse when he shamelessly tried to weasel out of his responsibility by blaming the loss of hundreds of lives on some field commander.
President Reagan fulfilled expectations that he would do better than he had in the first round of the debates. But that wasn't really asking for much. When lives of servicemen and embassy personnel are at stake, voters ought to expect much more.