Playing Gotcha at the Debates NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin answers your questions. This week: What not to do at a presidential debate.
NPR logo Playing Gotcha at the Debates

Playing Gotcha at the Debates

Ford's gaffe on Poland dominated the post-debate coverage in 1976. hide caption

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President Carter's chat with his daughter about nuclear weapons brought about widespread ridicule in 1980. hide caption

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Q: I have watched presidential debates for over 20 years and it seems that they are becoming more of a commercial than a debate. When was the last time the candidates debated each other instead of looking for the 10-second sound bite? –- Jon Yuengling, West Norton, Pa.

Presidential Debate Schedule

First Presidential Debate

Date: Thursday, Sept. 30

Topic: Foreign policy

University of Miami, Coral Gables, Fla.

Vice Presidential Debate:

Date: Tuesday, Oct. 5

Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio

Second Presidential Debate

Date: Friday, Oct. 8

Town hall forum setting

Washington University, St. Louis, Mo.

Third Presidential Debate

Date: Wednesday, October 13

Topic: Domestic policy

Arizona State University, Tempe, Ariz.

A: Yours is a common complaint. I was too young to remember the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but I would suspect that what we're seeing now is not comparable. Instead of hearing forceful arguments and well- thought-out positions, we have snappy rejoinders and unfortunate gaffes and clever comebacks and witty one-liners, not to mention the inevitable immediate declaration of "winners" and "losers" by the pundits and spinmeisters.

The campaign terrain is littered with the corpses of candidates who made a mistake, allowed his opponent to respond with a quip, or failed to answer satisfactorily. Others used a clever line to elicit laughter or applause from the audience. Gerald Ford, declaring there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Ronald Reagan, saying he wouldn't use his opponent's youth and inexperience against him. Al Gore, contemptuously sighing while his opponent was giving an answer. Michael Dukakis, failing to respond with emotion about a hypothetical rape and murder of his wife. Lloyd Bentsen, aghast at the thought of any similarities between his opponent and Jack Kennedy. Memorable moments all, though I'm not sure any of these examples were especially illuminating in helping us understand what was at stake.

I expect a similar result on Thursday, when President Bush and Sen. John Kerry hold their first debate. If you find yourself currently unsure about which candidate to support, I would advise that once the debate is over, immediately turn off the TV or radio and decide for yourself. Don't let anyone else decide for you who won or who lost.

Q: If, God forbid, both presidential candidates died in a freak microphone feedback accident at the debates, who would determine the successors to run? Would it be the vice-presidential candidates, or would the field be open? –- Tom Kovach, Norman, Okla.

A: A ghoulish hypothetical, to say the least. Anyway, the rules of both the Democratic and Republican national committees stipulate that in the event of the death of its presidential nominee prior to the election, the committees are authorized to name a replacement. It's a fair guess that should either Bush or Kerry meet an untimely demise before Nov. 2, their replacement(s) would be their respective running mates, but there is no guarantee. Of course, Dick Cheney would automatically become president should Bush die, but that doesn't mean he would automatically be the Republican nominee for president.

No presidential nominee has ever died prior to Election Day. Horace Greeley, the unsuccessful 1872 Democratic nominee, died after the election but before the electoral college had assembled. Vice President James Sherman, running for reelection with President William Howard Taft, died on Oct. 30, 1912, a week before the election. Sherman's name stayed on the ballot. The Taft-Sherman ticket finished a poor third in the election, winning only eight electoral votes. The Republican National Committee designated Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University, as the replacement candidate to get the eight votes. In 1972, George McGovern's choice as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, withdrew from the ticket. The Democratic National Committee met in a Washington, D.C., hotel eight days later and officially nominated R. Sargent Shriver as Eagleton's replacement.

Q: Would you explain to me why someone like Al Michaels is allowed to make a political statement during an NFL game? The other night, during a game between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, the ABC announcer –- while referring to "flip flops" -– said this was the right state for it. The game was played in Boston. –- Larry Barnes, Orlando, Fla.

A: For those not familiar with this, after Edgerrin James of the Colts fumbled on the Patriots' one-yard line, John Madden said, "That's what you call a flip-flop." Michaels' response: "Well, we're in the right state for that, John."

The issue for me is not whether Michaels is "allowed" to make such statements, any more than the late Howard Cosell was "allowed" to make comments about race or bigotry. It's that the Bush campaign has effectively portrayed Kerry as a flip-flopper, and many people -– everyone from David Letterman to Jay Leno to Al Michaels –- recognize the caricature. Thus, Michaels was simply taking advantage of the opportunity for a joke. It's hardly any more offensive than having Rush Limbaugh and Dennis Miller doing color for Monday night games. And what was that about?

Michaels' comment immediately reminded me of an incident in the fall of 1980. During his one debate with Ronald Reagan, President Jimmy Carter was asked a question about a treaty to limit nuclear arms. Seemingly out of nowhere, Carter said, "I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was. She said she thought nuclear weaponry –- and the control of nuclear arms."

It was a remark that was later the subject of much derision and ridicule. "Ask Amy" signs began popping up all along the campaign trail. At one stop, Reagan mocked Carter by saying, "I know he touched our hearts, all of us, the other night. I remember when Patty and Ron were little tiny kids, we used to talk about nuclear power." Even Roger Staubach got into the act. The Dallas Cowboys quarterback-turned-color commentator for CBS football was part of a broadcast team covering a Cowboys-St. Louis Cardinals game. Discussing the Cardinals' inability to make successful long throws down field, Staubach quipped, "I talked to my daughter, Amy, this morning about it. She said the number one problem [with the St. Louis offense] was the bomb." (Staubach actually has a daughter named Amy.) If memory serves, CBS was flooded with complaints, demanding that Staubach –- a longtime Republican and Reagan supporter -– apologize.

Q: Following up on the question from your Sept. 9th column about incumbent presidents denied renomination, how many presidents who were eligible to seek re-election decided not to run? I can think of Harry Truman in 1952 and Lyndon Johnson in 1968, but how many others? — William (Bo) Earley, Greer, S.C.

A: Those were the last two. Prior to the ratification of the 22nd Amendment in 1951, there was no limit to how many terms a president could serve. Here's the complete list of presidents who decided to retire from office, with the number of terms they served and the year they did not run again:

George Washington (2 terms) — did not run again in 1796

Thomas Jefferson (2 terms) — 1808

James Madison (2 terms) –- 1816

James Monroe (2 terms) -– 1824

Andrew Jackson (2 terms) -– 1836

James K. Polk (1 term) -– 1848

James Buchanan (1 term) -– 1860

Ulysses Grant (2 terms) –- 1876

Rutherford B. Hayes (1 term) –- 1880

Grover Cleveland (2 non-consecutive terms) –- 1896 (after 2nd term)

Theodore Roosevelt (1 term plus 3 years) –- 1908

Woodrow Wilson (2 terms) –- 1920

Calvin Coolidge (1 term plus 1-1/2 years) –- 1928

Harry Truman (1 term plus 3-1/2 years) -– 1952

Lyndon Johnson (1 term plus 1 year) — 1968

Hold the Mao: An item in the Sept. 9th column talked about the chaotic 1972 Democratic convention and the out-of-control process in which more than 70 people got votes for vice president. In one instance, New Mexico Democrat Robert Mondragon's name received a vote, but CBS' Walter Cronkite reported it as a vote for Chinese leader Mao Tse-Tung. Jerry Skurnik of New York City writes that Cronkite did not make the mistake; he only repeated what Dorothy Bush, the late secretary of the convention, had called out in announcing the vote. And the rumor -– since dismissed -– that President Bush mistakenly said "feces" instead of "fetus" at a Right to Life rally reminded Don MacGregor of Riverwoods, Ill., that "back in the late 80s or early 90s, when Jim Angle –- now of the Fox News Channel but then NPR's White House correspondent — played a tape on Morning Edition of a dinner speech J. Peter Grace gave, wherein he loudly proclaimed that 'even our President started out as feces.' You could hear the audience titter in the background, but Grace had no idea of the faux pas he had made, since the next thing he proclaimed was, 'Let's eat!'"

Finally, the reference to my unshakable love of the New York Yankees brought more mail than anything else from that column. It's fair to say that the reaction was mixed; not too many people were sympathetic to my note that the Yanks haven't won a World Series since 2000. Bridget Madden of Pittsfield, Maine, wrote, "I just discovered your 'Political Junkie' column today and was about to fall in love with this section of NPR's website, until I read the dread phrase 'my beloved Yankees.' It was nice reading, but I now have to quit. I was born outside of Boston. I bleed green. Goodbye."

This Day in Political History: The Warren Commission, which was assembled to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, announced that Lee Harvey Oswald, "acting alone and without advice or assistance," killed the president on Nov. 22, 1963. The commission, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, ruled out any conspiracy (Sept. 27, 1964).