Because of the press furor over the Ruff investigation and now the Butz incident, I failed to spend as much time preparing for the second debate as I should have. Foreign policy and national defense were my forte, and these would be the only two issues discussed during the confrontation that was scheduled for the evening of October 6 in San Francisco. . . .
I was stepping through a minefield, but I failed to recognize it at the time. "I don't believe, Mr. Frankel," I said, "that the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those countries is independent, autonomous; it has its own territorial integrity. And the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union. As a matter of fact, I visited Poland, Yugoslavia and Romania to make certain that the people of those countries understood that the president of the United States and the people of the United States are dedicated to their independence, their autonomy and their freedom."
Carter jumped all over that. "I would like to see Mr. Ford convince the Polish-Americans and the Czech-Americans and the Hungarian-Americans in this country," he said, "that those countries don't live under the domination and supervision of the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain."
Still, when the debate was over, I felt that I had come out ahead. Teeter's initial poll showed that I had "won" by 11 percentage points. In a ninety-minute span, my aides pointed out, Carter had made fourteen distortions or misrepresentations of the facts. The first indication that I was the one who had some explaining to do came next morning as Air Force One was flying south to Los Angeles. Cheney entered my cabin and said, in effect, that I had goofed. The press was hollering about my Easten European "mistake." Leaders of ethnic groups had expressed serious concern.
Cheney thought I should issue a clarification immediately. I told him I didn't see any need for that. If the critics didn't understand what I had meant to say, then that was their problem, not mine. And in my own mind I was sure what I had meant to say. Although the Soviet Union dominated Polish territory by stationing troops there, it didn't dominate the heart, soul and spirit of the Polish people. No, I reiterated, I wasn't going to retract what I had said. If a slip, it was not significant.
Minutes later, Cheney returned to my cabin, this time with Spencer in tow. The political fallout, Stu warned, was continuing. Teeter's latest poll showed that people who thought I had won the debate were beginning to change their minds. I couldn't afford to lose votes from ethnic groups over a verbal miscue, but I would lose them unless I acted fast. I can be very stuborn when I think I'm right, and I just didn't want to apologize for something that was a minor mistake. Finally, reluctantly, I agreed to try to put the issue to rest during an afternoon speech at the University of Southern California.