60 Years in Journalism: Debates, Then and Now

There have been election years in the past when the roster of candidates, generally in the party out of power, has been derisively referred to as the front-runner and the seven dwarfs. This year, the number of Republicans contesting is somewhere between seven and seven score, complicating the search for an epithet.

When Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination in 1980, his primary opponents were hardly political dwarfs. They included two future nominees, Senator Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush, a former Congressman, Ambassador to China, and Director of Central Intelligence, as well as Senate Republican leader Howard Baker. I was in Nashua, New Hampshire, to cover a debate between the two front runners, Reagan and Bush. Reagan wanted to include the also-rans, Bush did not, so there was a contretemps as the debate was about to begin.

When Reagan started to speak in defense of having all the candidates participate, the moderator instructed that his microphone be shut off. But Reagan's campaign money was financing the debate, so Reagan shouted: "I am paying for this microphone!" The other candidates agreed to leave Reagan and Bush to their one-on-one, Reagan's display of dynamism only served to cement his lead, and he went on to win the New Hampshire primary.

Movie fans later recalled a similar incident, with a similar punch line, in the 1948 film, State of the Union, in which Spencer Tracy played a conflicted presidential candidate.

The next day, in a nearby town, Howard Baker made a campaign appearance, which I covered. Baker was brilliant and witty in his post-mortem on the previous night's debate and verbally demolished his opponents. No matter -- a month later, Baker dropped out of the race. Reagan went on to show, in his debate with Jimmy Carter, that he was presidential timber.

In his campaign to wrest the presidency from Gerald Ford in 1976, Carter was the beneficiary in their debate of a comment volunteered by Ford, defending his policy of negotiating with Soviet Russia: "...there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration." Ford was given a followup chance to reword, but he only dug in deeper: "I don't believe...the Yugoslavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Rumanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union..."

I was a correspondent in Tokyo at the time, watching the debate in the studio of a Japanese television affiliate, and I nearly fell off my chair when Ford said that. He was roasted in every commentary, which was one of the factors that contributed to his defeat for re-election.

Running against George H.W. Bush, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was asked if he would support the death penalty if his wife were raped and murdered. Dukakis responded with a dispassionate restatement of his opposition to capital punishment, without the presence of mind to precede it with something like, "I might want to tear the guy limb from limb, but..."

Nor did Vice President Al Gore do himself any good four years later when he looked bored and disdainful at George W. Bush. And in a Republican primary debate before the 2012 election, Texas Governor Rick Perry urged the elimination of three government departments, but could name only two.

Little wonder that candidates increasingly do their best to rehearse and rehearse and stick to prepared talking points. However, there are plenty of other opportunities besides the debates for missteps to go viral on the web.

So here we are in another election season, with the first Republican debate having already aired. Since Kennedy vs. Nixon, they've been called "debates" though the formula of question, response, short rebuttal, really makes them joint appearances on a stage. So the Fox moderators made a yeoman effort, when a pair of candidates were known to hold contrasting views, to have them actually face each other in a brief debate. Could that be a precedent?