December may turn out to be the cruelest month for The Boston Globe and ABC News. The two media organizations had been all set to cosponsor a nationally televised presidential debates on December 7 and 8, until Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev announced his summit with President Reagan at the same time.
"We all had the same reaction," said producer Steve Atlas of the Public Broadcasting Service, which was to have broadcast live the Republican candidates the first night and Democrats the second. "We thought, 'What the hell do we do now? ' We were looking at a total eclipse of an important program in which there has already been a sizable investment of time and energy."
ABC News Senior Vice President Richard Wald said the original dates proved unworkable because the summit "would inhibit the debate about foreign policy. That debate would be difficult, especially for the vice president." Boston Globe spokesman Richard P. Gulla said the sponsors were looking for alternate dates for the two debates and will announce today whether they've found any.
In the meantime, at least two presidential campaigns are threatening not to participate in the other major presidential debate scheduled that month -- a two-hour prime-time event on NBC, set for Dec. 1 at the Kennedy Center in Washington -- if the network makes good on a proposal for a large debate involving all 12 Democratic and Republican candidates at once.
The Bush and Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) campaigns say it's a bad idea. But NBC says it is only one option among several that the network is considering, notwithstanding a letter from NBC News President Lawrence Grossman advising the candidates: "The format will be simple and direct. The Democratic and Republican candidates will be seated in groups opposite each other on the Eisenhower Theater stage."
"We are not going to do that," said Bush press secretary Peter Teeley, when asked if Bush would participate in such a format. "It's a distortion of the process ... NBC seems to be mixing apples and oranges at this point."
"We'd be inclined not to go," said Kemp senior adviser Charles Black.
But NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, who will be serving as the event's "mobile moderator," moving among the candidates to interrogate them, said these negative reactions are a case of too much, too soon.
"We have not settled on anything yet," Brokaw said. "But quite frankly, we'd like to work this out with them, and not with you. This looks to me like kind of preemptive strike by the Bush people."