the carter-ford debates -- 7/09/18

Today's selection -- from President Carter by Stuart E. Eizenstat. Jimmy Carter started his campaign with a 30-point lead in the polls over incumbent Gerald Ford. But that lead quickly narrowed, which put even greater importance on the debates between the two candidates. Carter's eventual victory had as much to with Ford's blunders as his own effectiveness:

"Preparing Carter for three presidential debates, the first in sixteen years since the first and decisive Kennedy-Nixon debate, may have been my biggest cam­paign challenge -- and his, too. A trained engineer, experienced businessman, and seasoned administrator whose strong point was the mastery of detail would be squaring off against an incumbent president who had spent a quar­ter of a century in Congress, and who was experienced in targeting the heart of an issue and finding the weak point of his opponent's argument with the force of the college football player that Gerald Ford had once been. At least that was how it might be handicapped, and our small policy group felt un­dermanned and under severe pressure.

"I was in charge of preparing the briefing papers and made the mistake of presenting Carter at his home in Plains with a book more than four inches thick, with detailed background materials, suggested answers for likely ques­tions, and attack lines against Ford, in the hope that we would refine the material during practice sessions. Instead he circled typographical errors and grammatical mistakes, as if he were my elementary school teacher, a prac­tice he continued with memos in the White House.

Click image to watch the debates.

"To help me in Atlanta with the mammoth project, I sought out Ted Van Dyk, Hubert Humphrey's talented aide with whom I worked in the 1968 campaign. Together we compiled the book, working seven days a week for two weeks, sleeping three or four hours a night. ...

"The economy and domestic issues were the focus of the first of three pres­idential debates between Ford and Carter in Philadelphia on September 23, 1976.

"Even when the most trusted members of the inner circle -- Ham, Jody, and Rafshoon -- joined me to urge him to prepare through a mock debate, he absolutely refused. This says much about his own supreme confidence (bor­dering on hubris) in his own intelligence, but not about his adaptability to a major-league debating stage, where he needed to reach out to voters with a wide spectrum of political views. ...

"I got only a few minutes to go over salient points I thought he should make. One was that prices were rising faster than paychecks, and that real earnings were less than they had been when Nixon took office. Predictably one of Carter's first questions was a softball. Frank Reynolds of ABC-TV noted that he had made job creation a top priority during the campaign and asked: 'Governor, can you say in specific terms what your first step would be next January if you are elected, to achieve this?' Carter stumbled over what should have been the incumbent's weakest point on the economy. Instead of bat­ting it back and knocking it out of the park, his answer was so unfocused that it made me cringe, as I heard him roll out a list of employment, housing, public works, research, taxation, and other eye-glazing proposals. He as­serted that they would push down the adult unemployment rate to 3 percent by the end of his first term and balance the federal budget. Four years later when he was preparing for his 1980 debate with Reagan, Carter made a rare admission of vulnerability, that 'the worst 20 minutes of my life was the first 20 minutes of the first debate with Ford.' ...

"For the second debate, on foreign policy, he [again] refused to prac­tice, not even on the long flight aboard Peanut One to San Francisco. The most we could do was persuade him to allow Brzezinski and representative Les Aspin of Wisconsin, a defense expert, to spend an hour with him in his hotel room reviewing his positions, but -- heaven forbid! -- not to practice an­swering possible questions.

"That debate turned out to be a decisive event in the campaign, although not because of any detailed mastery by Carter, but a historic blunder by Ford.

"There had been great controversy about whether the Nixon-Kissinger policy of détente with Moscow meant that somehow the Ford administration was acquiescent about Eastern Europe being part of the Soviet sphere of influence. Ford apparently had that in mind when Max Frankel of the New York Times, one of the panelists, asked whether the Soviet Union was gaining the advantage in a number of areas in the world. He ended the question by declaring: 'We've recognized the permanent Communist re­gime in East Germany. We've virtually signed in Helsinki an agreement that the Russians have dominance in Eastern Europe.' Ford's answer not only lost him the debate, it helped him lose the presidency. He replied, 'There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.'

"Astonished, Frankel said, 'I'm sorry. Did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influ­ence, occupying most of the countries there and making sure with their troops that it is a Communist zone, whereas on our side of the line, the Italians and the French are still flirting with the possibilities?' Ford dug himself more deeply into a hole by replying: 'I don't believe, Mr. Frankel, that the Yugo­slavians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Romanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those countries is independent, autonomous, it has its own territorial integrity, and the United States does not concede that those coun­tries are under the domination of the Soviet Union.' ...

"[After the debate] Ford's chief of staff. Dick Cheney, knew right away they were headed for trouble when Luke Hanna of the Washington Post shouted from the back of the room, 'Hey, Cheney, how many Soviet divisions in Poland?' What Ford's entou­rage did not yet know was that he could be as stubborn as Carter. The president refused for several days to admit that he had made a huge mistake, thanks in part to what Cheney (later vice president) felt was a fawning phone call from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: 'Oh, you did a won­derful job, Mr. President, magnificent performance.' "



Stuart E. Eizenstat


President Carter: The White House Years


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2018 by Stuart E. Eizenstat


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