From Richard Nixon’s five o’clock shadow to George H.W. Bush’s glance at his watch, lasting images inevitably emerge from presidential and vice presidential debates. And lines from historic contests can have far more longevity than the speakers’ political careers: Lloyd Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again!” ¶ In its presidential oral-history archives, the University of Virginia’s Miller Center has discovered timeless debate lessons learned by candidates and their advisers.
I don’t think anybody in our [1980 Ronald Reagan] organization really wanted to [debate]. They were scared. . . . [Nancy Reagan] was really nervous about a debate, and she entered the fray in the discussions. I had come to a conclusion in my own mind. . . . We’ve got to debate. It’s become part of the system. We’re going to lose more by turning it down. Done the right way, the format and everything done the right way, Reagan can hold his own. That’s all you can ask for. Maybe win, but hold his own. . . .
In that same discussion, Reagan looked at me and said, “I’ve got to do it.”
I said: “That’s right. You’ve got to do it, so you’ve got to get ready and do it right.”
— Stuart Spencer, Ronald Reagan campaign adviser, on the 1980 debates
So after some pulling and tugging, the president [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. Somehow 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. That was his preparation for the first debate. . . . And then the first debate occurred. His first answer to the first question [about how he would address unemployment] was as dreadful as one could possibly imagine.
— Stuart Eizenstat, assistant to Jimmy Carter, on the 1976 debates
I noticed that when they put the lights on overhead, that there was a big difference as to how it was in the lighting. I stood at [Democratic nominee Walter] Mondale’s podium and President Reagan stood at his, and we just had a little conversation so he could get a feel of the size. There was only about 10 feet between us. The Mondale people came running up and said: “Get away from that podium. You’re not supposed to be around that podium.” I said, “All right.”
When the lights were on overhead I noticed, as I stepped back, I could see President Reagan. I noticed large sockets under his eyes . . . because the lights above bounced off the podium and cast a shadow back up under his eyes. So I went over quietly and I put a blue pad on our podium. After the president left, I went in and had it measured precisely. So when we came back in, we put our blue down, and the president looked terrific.
You may recall Walter Mondale didn’t look so good. That’s why, the lighting coming off his podium. It was a little thing, but it was a way of getting even for them kicking me offstage. And people all commented on how tired Mondale looked in that debate. It wasn’t that he was more tired; it was that they didn’t pay attention to the detail of the lighting.
— Sigmund Rogich, campaign adviser to Ronald Reagan, on the 1984 debates
When Bernie Shaw asked that opening question [about the hypothetical rape and murder of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis’s wife] . . . all of us went: “Huuuh. Oh, my God, what an opener.”
Then, when Dukakis gave the answer, which was dreadful, like a robot, unfeeling, no emotions, cerebral, it fit the entire narrative that we were trying to portray him in.
Several of us said: “We just won. Not just the debate. We won. This is over.”
— David Demarest, campaign communications director for George H.W. Bush, on the 1988 debates
The debate coverage focused on [Lloyd Bentsen’s] Kennedy line. People came up afterwards and said, “You should have had a lot of comebacks on that.” I said: “Okay, fine, you tell me what. The most interesting comeback would have been, ‘Now wait a second, if my memory is correct, you voted for Senator [Lyndon] Johnson in those days. You weren’t even for Senator Kennedy when he was running for president, so what’s this buddy-buddy business?’ That was the best one.”
— Vice President Dan Quayle, on his 1988 debate with Lloyd Bentsen
At the very beginning of the debate, Carole [Simpson] . . . had said to President Bush, Bill Clinton and to Ross Perot, “Now, there won’t be any filibustering here.” And she said, “That means you, too, Mr. Perot,” because Ross Perot had been cited in the press many times for his tendency to go on and on; that had happened in previous debates.
So President Bush, at one point during the debate when Ross Perot was going on at great, great length, looked at Carole — and if you watch the tape, you’ll see he looked at her, then his watch, suggesting clearly, “Hey, Perot’s time is up” — meaning he’s filibustering. The media picked it up and wrote the story as another example that he didn’t get it.
— Phillip D. Brady, staff secretary to George H.W. Bush, on the 1992 debates
We talked about when [Democratic nominee Bill] Clinton was asked about the national debt by an African American woman [in the town hall debate]. She said, “How has the national debt affected you personally?” What she meant to say was, “How bad is the economy?”
Bush struggled with trying to figure out — and he was so much of a literalist, he kept trying to figure out what it was she was getting at, and then he didn’t give a very good answer. Then Clinton walks right up to her, and he talks about all the people that he knows personally in Arkansas who lost their jobs and their factories, and he’s talking to her like she’s the only person in the universe. It was just such a contrast. It was great. He was incredibly compelling.
Clinton also had gone to that site before, and he had talked to his media people. He knew where the camera shoots were, and he knew when they’d be doing an over-the-shoulder cut. He was into that sort of stuff. Bush hated that. He no more would have done that than fly to the moon.
— David Demarest, White House communications director for George H.W. Bush, on the 1992 debates
Russell L. Riley is chair of, and Barbara A. Perry is a senior fellow in, the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program. Its interviews are available at www.millercenter.org/academic/oralhistory.