By Eric Thurm
I should start this column with a confession: most of the 1976 presidential debates were pretty boring. To be fair to ‘76, all presidential debates are pretty boring if you are not a) a hardcore political junkie*, b) wonkier than Ezra Klein, or c) watching a debate with total incompetents and attention-mongering demagogues (like that would ever happen).
*As a helpful test on this one, ask yourself what odds you gave Kelly Ayotte on being selected as Mitt Romney’s VP nominee back in June.
Even given that these debates tend toward the dull, though, 1976 was a snoozer. It is truly shocking that the debates in the year that gave us Rocky, “Carry On Wayward Son,” and Melissa Joan Hart were not transformative and earth-shattering, but that’s what happens when your candidates are Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
Putting it bluntly, neither Carter nor Ford was a particularly charismatic or even interesting politician. To get a sense of the relative placidity of the political environment surrounding the campaign, consider that Carter later noted he and Ford “were not hot competitors,” a political understatement equivalent to “Joe Biden is occasionally off-message.” Neither candidate had really won or even very seriously run a national campaign before; Ford had been appointed in the wake of Nixon’s resignation* and was especially bland for a former football star, and Carter was almost completely new to politics on the national scale after spending his career in Georgia.
*I originally said Ford ran with Nixon, but he was actually appointed post-Watergate when Agnew resigned. That’s a big mea culpa. Sorry.
In fact, it didn’t break until between the second and third debates, but the biggest scandal of the whole race was Carter’s admission to Playboy that he had “looked on a lot of women with lust” and “committed adultery many times in [his] heart.” Carter was, to be fair, running in part on the strength of his religious conviction, and the interview hurt his credibility with Southern evangelicals. But think about the last few mini-gaffe cycles in the 2012 campaign, then look back on what a big deal it was for Carter to admit he was turned on by other women, and just try not to sigh at how adorable it was.
That these would be the candidates to bring back televised debates (and introduce vice presidential debates) 16 years after Nixon/Kennedy is surprising. What reason could either politician have had for putting himself on national television constantly when neither had much charisma? Rather than the candidates themselves, their unusual power dynamic was the most unique aspect of the race headed into the debates. Ford, the incumbent, had challenged Carter to debates, realizing that he was on track to be beaten, and beaten badly, without a game changer (as the kids are calling ‘em these days).
It’s not hard to see why Ford felt the need to change the status quo of the race. Carter, the former governor of Georgia, had ridden his image as a Washington outsider and reformer (sound familiar?) to an upset victory in the Democratic primaries over better-known candidates like Once And Future Governor of California Jerry Brown, former professional basketball player and Arizona congressman Mo Udall, and infamous segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace. The incumbent President Ford was left with the tattered remains of Vietnam, a pretty terrible economy in recession (and beginning to experience inflation), and dismal poll numbers following his decision to pardon Nixon for any Watergate-related crimes. He was 30 points behind Carter before challenging him to debate.
Considering how uneventful the race had been until then, however—and unfortunately for Ford—it’s appropriate that the most notable thing that happened during the debates was dead air.
Both candidates had made it through most of the first debate, which had focused on domestic issues, relatively unscathed. This was on balance a win for Ford, since the economy and the pardoning of Nixon were by far his biggest negatives at that point in the race. Then, toward the end of the debate, Carter was addressing the breakdown of American’s trust in government following Watergate when the audio cut out on both candidates’ mics. In an unfortunate bit of foreshadowing, Carter continued speaking at length before he realized no one was listening.
Once the candidates caught up to the rest of the country, their actions again demonstrated what kind of a race it was: they did absolutely nothing. For the 27 minutes it took to fix the audio, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter stood like statues, barely moving at all. Both showed their own brief moments of intense discomfort while standing, and neither came off particularly well after the debate. Ford later said he thought, “Both of us were hesitant to make any gesture that might look like we weren’t physically or mentally able to handle a problem like this.” The nation was breathlessly waiting to see if their president could deal with dreaded… technical difficulties.
The Duel Of The Silent Mic (which is what we’re calling this now, apologies to GZA) actually says quite a bit about the evolving role of media scrutiny in campaigns. Televised debates were some of the first instances where this type of easily spreadable, nationwide gaffe was possible. If you said something a bit off-color or off-message at a campaign stop or in a stump speech, it wouldn’t have nearly the impact of a clip that could be played and replayed on the evening news, not only staying in the national discourse but also reaching more potential voters.
Carter and Ford correctly understood that they had to be wary of their own physicality in addition to their words (think back to Nixon’s posture and appearance during the first debate in 1960, or the recent influx of words analyzing Paul Ryan’s unusually loose clothing). But the assumption that doing nothing would be perceived as somehow making the situation better and demonstrating competency in a “crisis” is ridiculous, and shows only the most basic awareness of their environment. As with Nixon’s general unpreparedness for his first showdown with Kennedy, ’76 took place during the forging of a modern political media climate that the candidates were to some extent unaware of. Now, both 2012 candidates are terrified of press avails.
In that same debate, Ford also displayed a lack of media awareness when he was asked why he’d pardoned Nixon. His response had two parts: first, that he had too much going on because of Vietnam and the economy and didn’t want to be distracted or distract the nation; and second, that Nixon had suffered enough what with the hearings and resignation. This answer did him no favors with outraged voters. Whining in the debate because he had too much work to do? Telling the nation to go easy on Richard Nixon just after Watergate? Gerald, please. The climate and continued air of distrust following the Watergate scandal meant many (if not most) Americans wanted both to see the perpetrators punished and to have some reason to begin to trust their government. Ford ignored both desires.
Two other moments notably marked the Ford/Carter debates, one for each candidate. Their respective reactions underlined not only the dynamics of the race, but the ways in which critical moments in campaigns can either become footnotes or change the course of history.
Carter’s moment of truth was the aforementioned Playboy “scandal.” Skip ahead from the first to the third debate (for the sex!). The Carter campaign was scrambling to deal with fallout from the publication of the interview, and Carter was asked about low voter turnout amid a pointless, small, negative campaign (I know) and to respond to both the content and existence of the interview. Here’s his response:
“The Playboy thing has been of great—of very great concern to me. I don’t know how to deal with it exactly. I agreed to give the interview to Playboy. Other people have done it who are notable: Governor Jerry Brown, Walter Cronkite, Albert Schweitzer, Mr. Ford’s own Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. [Willam E.] Simon, William Buckley, many other people. But they weren’t running for president. And in retrospect, from hindsight, I would not have given that interview if I had to do it over again. If I should ever decide in the future to discuss my deep Christian beliefs and condemnation and sinfulness, I’ll use another forum besides Playboy.”
Carter’s answer was in many ways a master class in how to answer such questions. He absolves himself of serious guilt by pointing out other prominent Americans who had given interviews to Playboy (including ones linked to his opponent!) and making his actions more palatable, accepting ultimate responsibility in a way that doesn’t really imply a serious mistake (“I don’t know how to deal with it exactly”), and hard-core humblebrags at the end of his response by pointedly noting that he had been discussing his serious moral beliefs (which make him more qualified to be president). Sorry about discussing deep, fundamental issues of serious moral and national importance in a forum you didn’t approve of, guys.
Compare Carter’s effective answer here to Ford’s own defining debate gaffe, which was entirely of his own making. During the second debate, Ford was asked a reasonably softball question on Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Instead of taking a stance against the Soviet sphere of influence, Ford seemed to deny that it even existed, proclaiming Poland, Yugoslavia, and the rest of the Soviet bloc autonomous states.
PRESIDENT FORD: I’m glad you raised it, Mr. Frankel. In the case of Helsinki, 35 nations signed an agreement, including the secretary of state for the Vatican—I can’t under any circumstances believe that the—His Holiness, the Pope would agree by signing that agreement that the 35 nations have turned over to the Warsaw Pact nations the domination of the—Eastern Europe. It just isn’t true… There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.
MR. FRANKEL: I’m sorry, I—could I just follow—did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying most of the countries there and making sure with their troops that it’s a Communist zone?
PRESIDENT FORD: 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.
Ford’s slip-up was a not-insignificant contributing factor to Carter’s victory. In fact, Carter later admitted that, “If it hadn’t been for the debates, I would have lost. They established me as competent on foreign and domestic affairs and gave the viewers reason to think that Jimmy Carter had something to offer.” Carter’s assessment isn’t quite accurate–he was obliterating Ford in the polls before the debates, and got most of his mileage out of an unforced error. But the debates did, again, prove to be, in part, crucial when they were held.
There are two primary lessons to glean from Ford’s gaffe. First, specifics matter. Ford claimed that if he had changed the specific words of his answer a bit, he would not have had nearly the same problem. This might be true. Ford’s claim that there “would never be” Soviet domination of Eastern Europe under his administration was flawed in the sense that what was really an opportunity for Ford to assert his toughness turned into a factual question of Soviet influence. What Ford ended up saying was flat-out wrong and out of touch, but the framing might have saved him the moderator’s double-take and shock that he would make such a claim, especially if he had made it as more of a direct ideological and aspirational statement rather than a blunt attempt at facts.
Second, Ford’s answer became important primarily because it reinforced an opinion of him that was widely held or widely known of in the electorate–that he was remarkably out of touch with the real world. Individual gaffes can’t all of a sudden become startling shifts in campaigns. They get enough attention to make it seem like they do sometimes, but ask yourself what kind of voter would ever change her mind because of a single flubbed answer. Instead (and to some extent this is conjecture but useful conjecture I hope), character becomes important to voters in broad strokes. So, for example, an off-hand remark challenging Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet might stick because the candidate in question is widely perceived as wealthy and out of touch.
Watershed moments in campaigns can connect the dots on a picture of a candidate, but they also function within a broader scheme of expectations. The second debate, focused as it was on foreign policy, was perceived to be Ford’s to lose. Though foreign policy was supposed to be Ford’s strength throughout the campaign, when he stumbled on it the gaffe became that much more important. For comparison, every foreign policy misstatement from Herman Cain became less shocking and almost boring after “Uz-beki-beki-beki-stan.” In that sense, maybe the 1976 debates weren’t that boring. Sure, it’s hard to listen to any of the answers all the way through. But watching candidates who were in many ways unprepared for what constituted presidential campaigns is in many ways more worthwhile than the smooth, well-run operation that gets a candidate safely to the White House. After all, those campaigns are so airtight that we wouldn’t even get to see any of the holes.
NOTE: There was also a vice presidential debate in 1976, between Walter Mondale and Bob Dole (so many exciting politicians in ’76!). I could write a few hundred words about it, but I figured this was already going to go long enough that no one would read it anyway. If anyone actually wants me to talk about the VP debates, let me know and I’ll be more than happy to.
Previously on Debate Night: Kennedy/Nixon, 1960