There are some strange things that have happened in the past few days. My mother went to the circus. David talked to a guy who he hasn’t seen in 37 years and who thought David was killed in Viet Nam, and there are ten Republicans running for President, who are debating this evening, and most of us have only heard of five –tops. Clearly my mother going to the circus, and having a good time, is the strangest. And thinking that your friends thought you were dead but never tried to find out if it was true (and it’s not like David has been widely published under a pseudonym), is also pretty strange. But the Presidential debates and all that goes on with a debate, could be right up there on the list of “Twilight Zone” topics.
In 1992, There were no Republican candidates because there was a sitting President, but there were seven, sometimes eight, Democratic aspirants. It was time for me to get involved in Presidential politics again but it was early and I wasn’t ready to make a commitment to any candidate. What to do? What to do?
I called my friend Carl Wagner who was always ready to do something creative, especially where it was in some way connected to Presidential politics. We met and brainstormed for a couple of hours and decided that because there were so many candidates, there was certainly a need for a series of debates. After all, the public needed to have a chance to judge this beauty contest, and we needed something to do.
When you work in campaign politics one of the lessons you learn is to insert yourself in the place you think you should be, and craft a job that meets your needs as well as appears to be critical to the progress of the campaign—in this case the Party. The first thing we did was to call the Chair of the DNC—Ron Brown. He was a great friend and easily accessible. We explained our thoughts about debates during the primaries and he agreed it was a workable idea. Then we called the broadcast networks and said we had access to all the candidates and the support of the Democratic National Committee and wouldn’t they like to be included in our series of debates. Then we called the candidates. It was quite a cast. Bill Clinton forever in our memories as Monica Lewinsky’s play thing, Tom Harkin, Senator from Iowa, Bob Kerrey now President of the New School—a much more interesting job than President of the nation. Al Gore, now a national environmental hero. The most unpleasant activist Ralph Nader, An actor named Tom Laughlin, who wanted to play with the big boys but never paid his bills. Doug Wilder, the Governor of Virginia, Paul Tsongas, beloved Senator from Mass., who died a few years ago. Someone named Agran, a mayor from someplace. And Jerry Brown, former Governor and full time whacko, who treated his staff like volunteers and never even provided a ride for them.
We told the candidates that the networks were interested in a series of debates and we were going to make it work for everyone. We insisted that they would not be inconvenienced and in fact, they did not need staff for the debates because we would provide all the people and resources. Having often been campaign staff, the last thing we wanted to do was deal with any candidates campaign staff. Most of them were grateful for the offer, and some, while suspect, thought debates were a good idea and felt that they wanted to participate. And so, having told the candidates we represented the networks, and having told the networks we represented the candidates, and having Ron Brown agree we should do it, we did a bit of fundraising to cover our costs and staff, and we launched an organization called Debates ’92.
It was not easy to coordinate the schedules of all the candidates or to get the networks to donate the time. Networks are not big at public service unless it is an announcement or two at 4am. But we succeeded in producing three debates and in keeping the campaign staffs happy and mostly removed from any decision making.
Probably, the most interesting event was the ABC debate in Texas. It was not because their rhetoric was thrilling. The candidates had not much to offer in any debate. But right before the debate started Peter Jennings was unhappy about something and threatened not to go on the air—I always loved those last minute crises. At the same time that Peter was trying to strong arm us about some debate policy, Bob Kerrey and Bill Clinton got into an argument. They were toe to toe and nose to nose and I was sure they were going to come to blows. It was never clear what the argument was about, but I romanticized and thought it was probably about the war in Viet Nam, Clinton not having served and Kerrey having lost a leg. Anyway, Carl pushed me right between them and eventually, because they didn’t want to hit me, (that was a political first, someone always wanted to hit me), they turned and walked away.
There were three debates. As it turned out two were network and one was PBS. They really didn’t make any impact on the voting public, but they gave Washington insiders something to write and talk about for a few days. Regardless of how they are coordinated, I believe debates are critical to the process because they do give the public an opportunity to judge what the people who want to lead the country are about. Democrat or Republican, it’s just too bad that so many “candidates” have no interest in either letting the public see who they are or in governing as though it will make a difference. We’re just sayin....Iris