The Debates: A Winning Miniseries
By Edward Fouhy
Ed Fouhy is editor of stateline.org, an online news service for journalists covering statehouse public-policy developments. He worked as a network news reporter and bureau chief from 1965 to 1989.
Whether it was the timing, the breakout from the press conference format or just the year of the voter, more people watched the televised presidential debates in 1992 than any other political event in American history. Even though only one of the debates was in prime time, audiences were up 20 percent over 1988 . The last was seen by a Super Bowl-sized audience approaching 100 million people, despite the fact that it began at 7 p.m. in the East and 4 p.m. in the West, well before prime time.
There are many theories why the audiences were so big. As executive producer of the debates, mine is that four face-offs in eight days made them a TV political miniseries. It was the "Roots" phenomenon; you had to watch in order to hold up your end of the conversation the following day. But if you missed one, there was another coming up.
Helping to sustain interest was the element of novelty; each debate had a different format. For the first time, the rigid moderator/panelist approach was used in only the first debate and part of the last one. The single moderator, long the darling of the academic community, finally got a tryout. The audience seemed to like the debates, and they were more influential than ever. In a Times Mirror post-election survey, 70 percent of respondents said the debates helped them decide whom to vote for – up from 48 percent in 1988.
By being scheduled so late in the campaign (October 11-19), the debates came at a time when the country was ready for them. Except for political junkies, the presidential campaign is essentially background noise for millions of Americans until October, when they are getting close to having to make up their minds. It's the month when politics becomes important to everyone, not just to the journalists and professional politicos who have been the players up to that point.
Finally there is baseball – for the first time in history only one U. S. city had a team in the World Series. The Atlanta-Toronto World Series was a big yawn. Ratings for CBS's coverage of the series was the second lowest ever.
Ironically, it was Vice President Dan Quayle who did more than anyone to encourage the Bush campaign to break out of the rigid format mold. Quayle, who was devastated in 1988 by Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's line, "I knew Jack Kennedy, senator, and you're no Jack Kennedy," knew that his hopes for helping the ticket and building his own candidacy for the future were riding on his debate performance. It was he and his chief of staff, William Kristol, who persuaded reluctant Bush campaign officials to agree to the single moderator format as proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates and accepted by the Clinton campaign in June.
On September 28, trailing in the polls by 10 to 15 points and with no sign of life on his political life support system, President Bush proposed six debates – one on each of the Sunday evenings remaining before the election. Two days later, lawyers began negotiating a compromise of four debates in eight days, including a single-moderator, vice-presidential debate, a voice-of-the-people debate and a debate that would be half single moderator, half panel.
Clinton's lead in the polls made it difficult for the Republicans to resist the changes in the debate format, especially since Quayle was determined to confront Sen. Albert Gore directly. Mickey Kantor, Clinton's campaign manager and chief negotiator, insisted on what became the University of Richmond format – ordinary voters confronting the candidates without a press panel. The Republicans, whose candidate never liked debates anyway, agreed after Kantor, tossing his pencil in the air in exasperation, threatened to pull out. One reason the Republicans did finally agree, according to one insider, was because they thought that Richmond, a conservative city, could be relied on to produce uncommitted voters sufficiently in awe of the president to guarantee softball questions.
On a glorious fall Saturday eight days before the first presidential debate, Bush and Clinton representatives met the commission's production team at my home in Washington. The proposed set design, which by then was half built anyway, was swiftly approved by both sides. Even the imposing eagle, which became the visual trademark of the '92 debates and was an attempt to get away from the bland, white bread look of previous debates, was approved without much discussion.
The first presidential debate was held at Washington University in St. Louis. Jim Lehrer of PBS was the moderator; John Mashek of the Boston Globe, Sander Vanocur, a freelancer, and ABC's Ann Compton were on the panel. All of them had been debate panelists before; Vanocur took part in the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960. Lehrer asked the first three questions. He focused on what it was that separated the candidates on the issues, their experience and character. Lehrer's questions, indeed all of the panel's questions, were substantive. The pattern was set. President Bush would stress his presidential stature and experience; Clinton would use the word "change" and the phrase "trickle down economics" as often as possible; Perot would sneer at his rivals and go for the simple, crowd-pleasing answer. The traditional format, two minute answers and one minute rebuttals, was at least partially defeated by the willingness of the panelists to work together and to eschew a strict rotation in their questioning.
That first debate was not seen on CBS, which was carrying a major league play-off game that went into extra innings. ABC suffered a serious technical failure in New York leaving millions of screens black for about six seconds, (an eternity on television) yet it still attracted the largest audience for a presidential debate since the one and only Carter-Reagan debate in 1980. A headline in the Atlanta Constitution put it best, "Debate Beats Baseball." It beat baseball better than four to one on the broadcast networks alone, never mind all the viewers of CNN, C-SPAN and PBS.
The vice presidential debate in Atlanta two days later was like a pre-Broadway tryout for the single moderator presidential debates that would follow. The moderator was Hal Bruno. He and I had to feel our way through the often fractious 90 minutes. We had no road map. The free-swinging format had never been tried before at such a high level of politics. As I talked in his ear, Bruno had to balance the demands of the format with the flow of the debate. He had to be in charge but not appear heavy-handed, a tough job given the fact that candidates Gore and Quayle were quick to ignore their agreed-upon restrictions and time limits.
The reviews were mixed. NPR's Nina Totenberg hated it. Her colleague Linda Wertheimer loved it. But the important thing was that the mold had been broken. As one political operative said, "We were like scientists looking at a laboratory experiment and it looked like a success."
As for the television audience, despite a 7 p.m. start time on the East Coast, the debate drew more than 70 million viewers – it was a hit.
The second presidential encounter was the debate the production staff had dreaded from the start. The two campaigns had had difficulty in deciding what they wanted to do. Would the candidates stand up or sit down? Walk around? Go into the audience?
Turning a 15,000-seat basketball arena into an intimate theater-in-the-round in only a few days posed other difficulties. Fortunately, NBC, the pooling network (a different network acted as pool for each debate), had assigned Bob Asman as the pool producer, John Libretto as director. Asman is a veteran network producer; there wasn't a production problem he hadn't solved before. Libretto, a network director with two decades of experience with all forms of live television, from sports events to a talk show, proved an excellent choice. The commission's lighting and sound crew had solved the immense production problems by working through the night to hang the steel trusses for lights and loudspeakers from the field house's 50-foot-high ceiling.
Next was the matter of getting through 90 minutes with a format never used before and with a moderator and executive producer totally new to the audience participation game. Fortunately, the superb production crew followed ABC's Carole Simpson, the moderator, flawlessly as I gave her direction in her ear. It was the uncommitted voters and their questions that drew attention. The questions were both simple and penetrating. They were not questions journalists might have asked, but questions that seemed, nevertheless, to cut to the heart of people's economic concerns. One young woman asked, "How can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what's ailing them?" Bush's failure to connect with her was a critical moment of the debate.
Clinton was clearly comfortable with the format. Bush seemed the least at home in the theater-in-the-round; Perot was probably most uncomfortable, but never showed it. In the hasty effort to find chairs that would be both telegenic and acceptable to the candidates, no concession was made to the 5'6" Perot. Had he tried to sit on his stool his feet would have dangled.
Again, the ratings left television executives astonished. When all the numbers were finally in, it was the most watched presidential debate in history, 89 million viewers, including PBS and Fox.
The final debate, at Michigan State, bore all the earmarks of a late night compromise, and it was. There was a single moderator for the first 45 minutes, a panel of reporters for the final 45 minutes. It was the fourth format in eight days.
The campaigns and the commission had quickly agreed on the moderator – Jim Lehrer again. The panelist-moderator selection process for all the debates had been carried out with a minimum of backbiting. Wire service reporters Gene Gibbons of Reuters, a respected veteran of the White House beat, and Helen Thomas, chief of UPI's White House bureau, were joined by Susan Rook of CNN. My greatest fear was that one of the three – all debate rookies – would walk onto the stage half way through the telecast and literally fall flat on their faces, coming from the backstage darkness and having to negotiate two steps to get to their table in the blazing onstage lights.
In both the single moderator portion as well as the panelist part of the 90 minutes, President Bush, who had had trouble finding his footing in earlier debates, came out swinging. He had told one of the technicians at the afternoon tech check that he was going to give 'em hell, and he did. Clinton held his own and managed to look presidential. Perot trotted out his one liners though they were growing tattered.
Lehrer's questions were broadly gauged and drew on answers the candidates had given a few days before in Richmond. The questions went to the heart of the candidates' themes of credibility, leadership and reaction to crisis. They were serious and thought-provoking. Afterwards, columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote that henceforth all presidential debates should have Jim Lehrer as the single moderator. When the candidates broke their rules and directly addressed one another, Lehrer handled them gently but firmly. He showed no reluctance to chastise any of the candidates when they strayed from the format.
After the debate ended Clinton told commission Co-chairs Frank Fahrenkopf and Paul Kirk and Executive Director Janet Brown that if it hadn't been for the commission's role as broker of the debates, "We'd still be arguing about the size of the podiums."
Republican campaign manager Bob Teeter was equally upbeat. He said he was very pleased with the way the debates had been conducted and was gratified that the audiences had increased during the eight-day period. Well he might have been pleased. When the numbers for the last debate were tallied it was the biggest winner of all – about 97 million viewers on the three major networks, PBS and Fox.
In retrospect, the lessons of 1992 seem obvious. The format battle has been settled. The old, inflexible press conference arrangement has been discarded. Who knows what direction a candidate's self interest will dictate in the future, but at least unknown waters have been charted. For journalists, the success of the Richmond format means that "gotcha" questions, popular since the journalistically heady days of Watergate, may be nearing the end of their run in presidential debates. This is the year the voters took over and supplanted the journalistic agenda with an agenda of their own, concentrating on substance and issues. l
Edward M. Fouhy was executive producer for the 1992 presidential debates. He has served as Washington bureau chief for ABC and a producer for NBC during his 23-year career as a television journalist..###