Acting, With No Second Takes
Bush and Kerry get set to make their marks in a grand tradition of high-stakes drama
Walter Mondale still remembers the year he both lost and won the presidential debates. It was 1984, and Mondale, the Democratic nominee, was facing off against President Ronald Reagan, the "Great Communicator," in Louisville, Ky.
Reagan had shown himself to be a formidable debater in his matchup against President Jimmy Carter four years before. Asked if he had been nervous about being on the same stage with an incumbent president, Reagan replied: "Not at all. I've been on the same stage with John Wayne."
And, indeed, the same skills necessary for acting are necessary for modern presidential debating: projecting an image, playing to an audience, remembering your lines. The big difference is that in debates there are no second takes. It is all live, and aside from the viewing audience, there is a very specialized audience--the news media--who circle like sharks ready to tear into any perceived flaw, weakness, or error. (After the second debate between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis in 1988, one wag in the press room said, "It was like watching Mike Tyson fight Cicely Tyson!")
But having a good performance one year does not guarantee a good performance four years later. Which is very much on the mind of the Bush debate team, as President Bush and Sen. John Kerry prepare to face off Thursday in Coral Gables, Fla., for the first of three scheduled debates.
Reagan was 73 when he faced Mondale in Louisville, and he came across as even older than his years. In his book Presidential Debates: Forty Years of High-Risk TV, Alan Schroeder writes, "Ronald Reagan would turn in the worst performance of his long career, appearing disengaged, disjointed, and discombobulated against Walter Mondale. . . . Not since Richard Nixon had a presidential debater stepped off the stage so battered."
Even his opponent was shocked. "I remember wondering about Reagan as I came off the platform after that first debate," Mondale told U.S. News recently. "I told my people that I was worried about him, and I really was. If you look at that debate closely, you'll see that I even started letting up on him the last 15 or 20 minutes."
Spin city. Nancy Reagan called it "the worst night of Ronnie's political career." (Lee Atwater, a Reagan strategist, claimed he invented "spin" that night by telling his team to go out and tell the press that Reagan had done magnificently and had won the debate. Spin has become no more reliable since then.) Clearly, a new strategy had to be found. Some 65.1 million people had watched the debate, and just one more followed 14 days later in Kansas City, Mo. For the first one, Reagan's prep team had tried to stuff his head with the facts and figures that incumbent presidents were expected to have at hand. But for the second debate, Reagan heeded the advice of media guru Roger Ailes, who told him, "You didn't get elected on details. You got elected on themes." And Reagan gave a solid performance as a likable father figure whom the nation could trust. He even got off a wowser of a line when, in response to a question about his age, Reagan said, "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."