Wednesday, September 24, 2008


This Friday was supposed to be the first of three Presidential Debates with the actual candidates. (I forget how many debates there were during the primary season—too many, I think.) But it now looks as if Friday’s debate may be postponed at the request of the McCain campaign because of the current financial crisis (and dare I say, could it be his lack of preparation?) At the moment, Obama and the Presidential Debate Commission still want to go ahead with Friday's debate.

Debates can be critical in determining election results. It certainly was in 1980. There were actually two debates: one between Governor Reagan and Rep. John Anderson * (the Nader-like spoiler candidate in my opinion), and a single debate between President Carter and Governor Reagan on October 28** in Cleveland, Ohio- just days before the election. About the only thing most people remember about that single debate was Reagan’s clever retort: “There you go again.” Curiously, when I printed out the transcript of the complete debate, I couldn’t find the quote anywhere. I thought I recalled that it was in response to President Carter’s comment about health care. But I carefully scanned the complete transcript and could not locate Reagan’s aside. Evidently, whoever prepared the transcript for the Commission on Presidential Debates didn’t consider an aside worthy of inclusion. But again, that is probably the only thing even political junkies remember about the 1980 debate.

“Ironically, the Carter campaign had pursued a debate with Reagan because they thought it would give the president a chance to display his great command of complex issues, and that Reagan might stumble or look confused. Only when the Reagan camp saw how tight the race was did they agree to debate at all.

They were glad they did. Rather than sounding dangerous or overwhelmed, Reagan calmly brushed aside Carter’s attacks, shaking his head and saying, ‘There you go again.’ As Carter speechwriter and journalist Hendrik Hertzberg put it, ‘When people realized that they could get rid of Carter and still not destroy the world, they went ahead and did it.’ ” Quotation from transcript of PBS American Experience on Jimmy Carter

In the paper "Quips, Jokes, and Power: Humor as Weapon in Presidential Campaigns,” Reagan’s comment is featured as a major example. “Near the end of the debate, Carter concluded an answer on Medicare in which he iterated his support for such programs by saying, ‘These are the kind of elements of a national health insurance, important to the American People. Governor Reagan again, typically, is against such a proposal.’ After the moderator called on him, Reagan chuckled briefly as he turned to Carter and delivered the now classic line, ‘There you go again.’ Then Reagan laughed a second time as the audience laughed with him.” Michael A Krasner, Associate Professor Dept. of Political Science, Queens College, City University of New York, September 1, 2004.

The real issue and the scandal, however, is that the Reagan campaign had acquired President Carter’s briefing book. They knew in advance the major points Carter was going to make. So they had the opportunity to prepare reasoned responses to the President’s attacks when they had reasonable answers. And if they didn’t have a reasonable response, well, they had a clever retort all set to go – something that deflected the issue and made Carter sound mean spirited. People don’t remember what Reagan’s aside was in response to, they only remember how calm and friendly he seemed. They don’t know or even care that the Reagan campaign cheated with a stolen briefing book. I think I’ve figured out who might have been able to acquire the briefing book for the Reagan campaign, but I hesitate to name him since I don’t have direct proof. Let me just say I think it was someone on the U.S. National Security Council who had ties to George H.W. Bush going back to his CIA days, and later became an ambassador.

(Think how Mike Dukkakis might have answered Bernard Shaw’s trick question about Kitty Dukkakis as a rape victim, if he had had a similar heads up about the question. He could have dramatically exclaimed that he would want to hammer the guy, strangle him with his bare hands…. but….we live in a society of laws, not men, and that the law would have to take its course. Or something like that – at least better than the perceived cold, unfeeling response he actually delivered, when he was attempting to be measured, calm and probably presidential.)

The possibly treasonous scandal of the 1980 election, however, had already occurred in early October – weeks before the Presidential Debate. I’ll write about that on its 28th anniversary— this October 2nd.

* Rand, a colleague at work, mentioned that President Carter declined to attend the first debate in 1980 and that Governor Reagan went ahead anyway and had it with Rep. John Anderson -- but left Carter's empty chair on stage. It will be interesting to see how Friday's debate plays out if McCain stays away and Obama has the stage to himself. Republicans, I'm sure, will be critical of Obama for going ahead, despite the Reagan precedent.

* *Anniversary of the Battle of the Milvian Bridge between Constantine and Maxentius in Rome in 312 C.E., one of the major turning points in world history. Coincidentally, also the anniversary of Mussolini’s March on Rome 1n 1922.

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