Eight Lessons for the Presidential Debates
What are the key dos and don'ts the candidates should remember when campaigning for the White House?
- By Kenneth C. Davis
- Smithsonian.com, October 03, 2012
Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon had no interest in debating their opponents in the elections of 1964 to 1972. But after a 16-year hiatus, the presidential face-offs returned in 1976. In October that year, the debates resumed with a new loophole in the “equal time” rule: the FCC ruled that debates were “bona fide news events,” and if sponsored by an organization other than the networks, would be exempted. The League of Women Voters stepped in.
But Gerald Ford, the only president never elected president or vice president, learned a harsh lesson in geopolitics when, in the second debate with Jimmy Carter, he said, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.”
When the incredulous moderator followed up, Ford repeated the assertion. With the Soviet Union controlling most of Eastern Europe since the end of World War II, Ford had unleashed a gaffe that didn’t clinch Carter’s victory that year. But his jaw-dropping statement seemed to give credence to the view that he was in over his head and confirmed his earlier words to Congress—“I’m a Ford not a Lincoln.” Years later, Ford would defend his words saying he hadn’t adequately explained that he meant that he believed that the Polish people would “throw the Soviet…forces out.”
The bottom line: “losing” a debate, especially with a whopper of a mistake, is probably more significant than actually “winning” it.