Authors: Jim Lehrer
Tags: #Mystery, #Historical
Reagan conceded that Carter, the man who wasn't there, had to endure unanswered criticism from both him and Anderson at the Baltimore debateâparticularly about the failing economy. “There might be some feeling of unfairness about this, because he was not here to respond. But I believe it would have been much more unfair to have had John Anderson denied the right to participate in this debate.”
Meanwhile, Carter's campaign people insisted on one-on-one debates with Reagan.
“I wanted a lot of debates,” Carter said. “I wanted three or four debates at least.”
“Because I thought that I was much more a master of the subject matter. I knew that he was a master of the medium, perfectly at ease before the television cameras. I knew that I was not a master of the medium, and I thought that if we'd get past the one hour and go to maybe four, five, six hours on television, that substance rather than style would be more prevalent.”
In the end, there was just one Carter-Reagan debate at Public Music Hall in Cleveland one week before Election Day. The moderator was the same Howard K. Smith who had moderated the first Kennedy-Nixon event in 1960. The only thing that had changed in twenty years was the network. Smith had moved from CBS to ABC.
Smith, in his memoir, said, “The actor had it all the way,” adding, “That night Reagan won the debate and, as they say, put the election on ice.”
John Anderson was struck immediately with the certainty that the Reagan-Carter debate had devastated his campaign. “The only thing that I could think of was that on the television sets as people across the country watched that debate, it was a two-man race. If I had been important, if I had really been other than simply tangential to the whole process, I would have been there. They didn't know about all of the back-and-forth and the efforts that we had made to get into the debate. They couldn't possibly know the disappointment that that was. No, it was absolutely crushing.”
Two Major Moments came from that one debate.
Carter's came when he 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 weaponryâand the control of nuclear arms.”
That was a blunder that Carter himself later acknowledged.
“It was an honest statement that made a point that still is remembered. I got a flood of letters afterward, you know, congratulations, you did the right thing. Your daughter, Amy, had more judgment about nuclear weaponry than Reagan did and so forth. But I think in the contest there just a few days before the election, he came out ahead on that deal.”
Reagan knew it the moment Carter said it.
“It seemed to me he had [made a terrible mistake], because the whole thing soundedâand I think you could almost feel an attitude from the audience on itâthat the president was going to make a major policy based on what a child told him. And I'm sure he didn't have that in mind, but that's the way it came out. And I was prepared to say to the people, I promise them I wouldn't ask my kids what I should do.”
That was also the night of Reagan's most famous debate line, “There you go again.”
The subject at that moment was a proposal concerning Medicare and Carter's repeated charge that Reagan had opposed even its original creation on the grounds that it was socialized medicine.
Governor Reagan again, typically, is against such a proposal.
There you go again. When I opposed Medicare, there was another piece of legislation meeting the same problem before the Congress. I happened to favor the other piece of legislation and thought that it would be better for the senior citizens and provide better care than the one that was finally passed.
But for the two men, in their separate interviews with me, there was no agreement on that telling line.
“Well, I'm sure that was a well-rehearsed line that President Reagan had prepared carefully,” Carter said, citing “the style of delivery when he would bring it inâ¦ it was an inevitable statement that he would make.”
Reagan denied he had prepared to use those specific words in advance. “No, it just seemed to be the thing to say in [response to] what he was saying up there, becauseâ¦ to me it felt kind of repetitious, something we had heard before.”
Carter conceded the damage. “That was a memorable line. I think it showed that he was relaxed and had a sense of humor, and it was kind of a denigrating thing for me. And I think that he benefited from saying that, politically speaking.”
Reagan's view was that his own closing point in that debateâsuggesting that voters ask themselves whether they were better off now than they were four years agoâwas more important to his winning the debate, and, ultimately, the election.
FOUR YEARS LATER
, Walter Mondale, as the 1984 Democratic nominee, had the daunting task of facing Republican president Ronald Reagan, who maintained a strong lead in the polls.
Barbara Walters, moderator of the first Reagan-Mondale debate, highlighted another difficult taskâgetting the candidates to agree on the journalist panels.
After laying out the format and the rules, she said to the vast television audience, “And now I would like to add a personal note, if I may. As Dorothy Ridings [president of the League of Women Voters] said [in her introduction], I have been involved now in four presidential debates, either as a moderator or as a panelist. In the past, there was no problem in selecting panelists. Tonight, however, there were to have been four panelists participating in this debate. The candidates were given a list of almost one hundred qualified journalists from all the media and could agree on only these three fine journalists. As moderator, and on behalf of my fellow journalists, I very much regret, as does the League of Women Voters, that this situation has occurred.”
For Mondale, the stakes were high. He figured his only hope was that something would happen during the debates to turn things around. He also knew Reagan, the front-runner incumbent, didn't have to debate him at all. The debate imperative was not yet that established.
BUT REAGAN AGREED
to two debates in October, in the last few weeks before the election. One was in Louisville, Kentucky; the other in Kansas City, Kansas.
Mondale went into those debates with a hard, fast mission.
“I wanted to show presidential stature,” he told me. “I wanted to show mastery of the issues. I wanted to show that progressive dimension again. I wanted to show that I was more alert than the president, without being negative.”
The former vice president was also ready for Reagan's signature line. In the first debate in Louisville, Mondale suggested that Reagan would propose a tax increase on low- and middle-income Americans after the election, leaving wealthy Americans largely untouched.
You know, I wasn't going to say this at all, but I can't help it: There you go again. I don't have a plan to tax or increase taxes. I am not going to increase taxes. I can understand why you are, Mr. Mondale, because as a senator you voted sixteen times to increase taxesâ¦.
Reagan continued along these lines, and panelist Fred Barnes of
The Baltimore Sun
pressed him for details on his commitment not to raise taxes in his second term. Mondale, during his rebuttal, pounced.
Mr. President, you said, “There you go again.” All right. Remember the last time you said that? You said it when President Carter said you were going to cut Medicare, and you said, “Oh no, there you go again, Mr. President.” And what did you do right after the election? You went out and tried to cut $20 billion out of Medicare. And so, when you say “There you go again,” people remember this.
Mondale happily agreed with the debate consensus that he had won the debate. But he said there was more to it than his prepared comeback. “The main thing, I think, that hurt him was he seemed to be ill-focused, seemed to lose his way, stumble, roam around in irrelevancies, and it was a prettyâit was an impressively unimpressive personal performance.”
Others had noted that Reagan seemed tired. I asked him about that.
“No, it wasn't tired. I was overtrainedâ¦. I want to tell you, I just had more facts and figures poured at me for weeks before than anyone could possibly sort out and use, and I call it overtraining. When I got there, I realized that I was racking my brain so much for facts and figures on whatever subject we were talking about that I knew I didn't do well.”
But two weeks later in Kansas City, things changed. Reagan said later he definitely did not go into that one overtrained. And panelist Henry Trewhitt of
The Baltimore Sun
asked a question that enabled him to turn a potential liability into a strength:
You already are the oldest president in history, and some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall yet that President Kennedy had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuba missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?
Not at all. And, Mr. Trewhitt, I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.
When I asked if he had been lying for that one, Reagan said it just came to him right off the top of his head.
Whether the line was preprogrammed on not, Mondale knew he had just taken a hit.
“Well, I'll tell you, if TV can tell the truth, as you say it can, you'll see that I was smiling. But I think if you come in close, you'll see some tears coming down because I knew he had gotten me thereâ¦. That was really the end of my campaign that night, I think. That's what I thought.”
“Yes, I walked off and I was almost certain the campaign was over, and it was.”
Did you say that to anybody?
MY INTERVIEW WITH
Ronald Reagan took place five years after the 1984 debates in his Century Plaza office in Los Angeles. There was already talk that the former president was having memory problems and, in fact, one of his own aides suggested to me not to expect a full accounting of every little thing that had happened in every debate.
Reagan implied that himself as we chatted before the cameras started taping. It was clear that somebody had to force him to talk about the debates in the first place. Let's just get it over and be done with it, his body language suggested.
Making small talk, Reagan mentioned that he had just autographedâfor the makeup artistâan old copy of
magazine that featured him and Paul Muni on the cover. Reagan amused everyone by recounting how Muni had always insisted on standing on the left-hand side for all group studio stills, as it offered a “better angle.”
I brought up that just a month before, by chance, I had watched his 1940 movie
Santa Fe Trail
Reagan gave me one of those famous smiles and recounted with considerable detail how he had posed for a
Santa Fe Trail
group cast photo that included Errol Flynn, Raymond Massey, Olivia de Havilland, Alan Hale, and Van Heflin. Reagan played Custer; Flynn was Jeb Stuart.
He told me that Errol Flynn, “as always,” had insisted on posing in the front row in the most prominent position. Both were tall, but Reagan, behind Flynn, wanted to appear to tower over him. So he stood on a small box of some kind. Reagan held up his hands to show the size of the box and raised his head as he had to appear even taller.
He continued talking like that for several delightful minutes, and I think we both had private regrets that we had to move on from his movie memories to presidential debates.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This is J
fifteenth novel. He's also the author of two memoirs and three plays and is the executive editor and anchor of
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
on PBS. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his novelist wife Kate. They have three daughters.
ALSO BY JIM LEHRER
We Were Dreamers
Kick the Can
The Sooner Spy
Lost and Found
A Bus of My Own
The Last Debate
The Special Prisoner
No Certain Rest
This is a work of fiction. Though some characters, incidents, and dialogues are based onthe historical record, the work as a whole is a product of the author's imagination.
Copyright Â© 2005 by Jim Lehrer
Excerpt from Tension City copyright Â© 2011 by Jim Lehrer.
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
The Franklin affair: a novel / Jim Lehrer.
1. BiographersâFiction. 2. Philadelphia (Pa.)âFiction. 3. Franklin, Benjamin, 1706â1790âFiction. 4. Funeral rites and ceremoniesâFiction. 5. ExtortionâFiction. I. Title.
PS3562.E4419F35 2005 813â².54âdc22 2004051347
Random House website address:
This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming title Tension City by Jim Lehrer. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.