I should commence this column with a confession: most of the 1976 presidential debates proved to be rather unexciting.
To be fair to ’76, all presidential debates tend to be somewhat dull unless you are a) a die-hard political enthusiast*, b) more immersed in politics than Ezra Klein, or c) watching a debate featuring complete incompetents and attention-seeking demagogues (as if that could ever happen).
*To test this, ask yourself what odds you would have given Kelly Ayotte for being selected as Mitt Romney’s VP nominee back in June.
Even acknowledging that these debates typically lean towards the uneventful, 1976 was a letdown.
It’s genuinely astonishing that the debates in the same year that brought us Rocky, “Carry On Wayward Son,” and Melissa Joan Hart were not groundbreaking and transformative.
However, that’s what transpires when your candidates are Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
To be blunt, neither Carter nor Ford emerged as particularly charismatic or intriguing politicians.
To grasp the relative lack of excitement in the political climate during the campaign, consider that Carter later remarked that he and Ford “were not hot competitors,” a political understatement comparable to saying “Joe Biden occasionally veers off-message.”
Neither candidate had previously won or even seriously pursued a national campaign; Ford had been appointed following Nixon’s resignation*, and despite his football star background, he came across as notably unremarkable.
On the other hand, Carter was essentially a newcomer to national politics after spending his entire career in Georgia.
*I initially mentioned Ford’s run with Nixon, but he was actually appointed after Watergate when Agnew resigned. That’s a significant error on my part. I apologize.
In fact, it didn’t happen until between the second and third debates, but the most significant scandal of the entire race involved Carter’s admission to Playboy that he had “looked on a lot of women with lust” and “committed adultery many times in [his] heart.”
To be fair, Carter was partially running on the strength of his religious conviction, and this interview damaged his credibility among Southern evangelicals.
However, consider the recent mini-gaffe cycles in the 2012 campaign, and then reflect on how much of a big deal it was for Carter to confess that he was attracted to other women.
It’s hard not to sigh at how quaint it all seems.
The fact that these two candidates would be the ones to reintroduce televised debates (and introduce vice-presidential debates) 16 years after Nixon/Kennedy is surprising.
What motivation did either politician have to constantly appear on national television when neither possessed much charisma?
The most unique aspect of the race leading into the debates was not the candidates themselves, but their unusual power dynamic.
Ford, the incumbent, had challenged Carter to debates, realizing that he was on track to lose, and lose decisively, without a game changer (as the kids are calling them these days).
It’s easy to understand why Ford felt the need to shake up the race’s status quo.
Carter, the former governor of Georgia, had leveraged his image as a Washington outsider and reformer (sound familiar?) to score an upset victory in the Democratic primaries over better-known candidates like the Once And Future Governor of California Jerry Brown, former professional basketball player and Arizona congressman Mo Udall, and the infamous segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace.
The incumbent President Ford was left grappling with the remnants of Vietnam, a rather dismal economy in recession (and the onset of inflation), and dismal poll numbers after his decision to pardon Nixon for any Watergate-related crimes.
He trailed Carter by 30 points before challenging him to a debate.
Nevertheless, considering how uneventful the race had been up to that point—and unfortunately for Ford—it’s fitting that the most memorable incident during the debates was dead air.
Both candidates had made it through most of the first debate, which had primarily focused on domestic issues, relatively unscathed.
This was, on balance, a win for Ford, given that the economy and the Nixon pardon were his most significant liabilities at that stage of the race.
Then, towards the end of the debate, while Carter was addressing the breakdown of Americans’ trust in government following Watergate, the audio cut out on both candidates’ microphones.
In an unfortunate instance of foreshadowing, Carter continued speaking at length before realizing that no one was hearing him.
Once the candidates caught up with the rest of the country, their subsequent actions demonstrated the nature of the race: they did absolutely nothing.
For the 27 minutes it took to resolve the audio issue, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter stood motionless like statues.
Both displayed moments of intense discomfort while standing, and neither came across particularly well after the debate.
Ford later expressed that he believed, “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 anxiously waiting to see if their president could handle the dreaded… technical difficulties.
The Duel Of The Silent Mic (our new name for this incident, with apologies to GZA) actually sheds light on the evolving role of media scrutiny in political campaigns.
Televised debates marked one of the earliest instances where this type of easily shareable, nationwide gaffe could occur.
If you made a somewhat off-color or off-message remark at a campaign event 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 remaining in the national discourse but also reaching a larger pool of potential voters.
Carter and Ford correctly recognized that they needed to be mindful of their physical presence in addition to their words (recall Nixon’s posture and appearance during the first 1960 debate, or the recent surge in analyses of Paul Ryan’s unusually loose clothing).
However, the assumption that doing nothing would be perceived as somehow improving the situation and demonstrating competency in a “crisis” is absurd and reflects only the most basic awareness of their surroundings.
Much like Nixon’s overall lack of readiness for his initial confrontation with Kennedy, the 1976 election occurred during the establishment of a modern political media landscape that the candidates were, to some extent, unaware of.
In contrast, both 2012 candidates are cautious about press interactions.
In that same debate, Ford also displayed a lack of media awareness when asked about why he had pardoned Nixon.
His response had two parts: first, that he had too much on his plate due to Vietnam and the economy and didn’t want to be distracted or distract the nation; and second, that Nixon had suffered enough with the hearings and resignation.
This response did him no favors with outraged voters. Complaining in the debate about having too much work to do?
Asking the nation to be lenient toward Richard Nixon immediately after Watergate? Gerald, please.
The climate and ongoing atmosphere of distrust following the Watergate scandal meant that many (if not most) Americans wanted both to see the wrongdoers punished and to have some reason to begin trusting their government again.
Ford ignored both of these desires.
Two other moments notably marked the Ford/Carter debates, with one significant moment for each candidate.
These moments highlighted not only the dynamics of the race but also how critical campaign moments can either become footnotes or change the course of history.
Carter’s moment of truth came during the aforementioned Playboy “scandal.”
Skipping ahead from the first to the third debate (for the sake of discussing the Playboy interview), the Carter campaign was struggling to manage the fallout from the interview’s publication.
During this debate, Carter was questioned about low voter turnout in the context of a largely negative and inconsequential campaign.
He was also asked to address both the content and existence of the Playboy interview. Here’s how he responded:
The Playboy thing has been a matter of great concern to me. I’m not sure how to handle it exactly. I agreed to give an interview to Playboy. Other notable individuals have also done so, such as Governor Jerry Brown, Walter Cronkite, Albert Schweitzer, Mr. Ford’s own Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. [Willam E.] Simon, William Buckley, and many others. However, they weren’t running for president. Looking back, if I had the chance to do it over again, I would not have granted that interview. If, in the future, I decide to discuss my deep Christian beliefs, condemnation, and sinfulness, I will choose a different platform than Playboy.
Carter’s response in many ways served as a master class in addressing such questions effectively.
He skillfully alleviated himself of significant guilt by highlighting other prominent Americans who had also granted interviews to Playboy, even some linked to his opponent.
His response accepted ultimate responsibility without implying a grave mistake (“I don’t know how to deal with it exactly”).
Moreover, he engaged in a subtle humblebrag by pointedly mentioning that he had been discussing his profound moral beliefs, which he believed made him more qualified to be president.
He subtly conveyed that he was discussing deep, fundamental issues of serious moral and national importance in a forum that might not have been approved of by everyone.
Comparatively, Ford’s defining debate gaffe, which was entirely self-inflicted, stands in stark contrast.
During the second debate, Ford received a relatively softball question about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.
Instead of taking a stance against Soviet influence, Ford appeared to deny its existence entirely.
He stated that Poland, Yugoslavia, and other countries in the Soviet bloc were 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 blunder significantly contributed to Carter’s victory. Carter later conceded, “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, while not entirely precise, underscores the debates’ pivotal role when they occurred.
Ford’s gaffe offers two primary lessons. Firstly, the importance of specifics becomes evident.
Ford believed that by tweaking the specific wording of his response, he might have avoided the same problem.
This could hold some truth. Ford’s assertion that there “would never be” Soviet domination of Eastern Europe under his administration was flawed because what initially seemed like an opportunity for Ford to assert his toughness transformed into a factual query about Soviet influence.
Ford’s ultimate statement was factually incorrect and out of touch.
However, a different framing might have spared him the moderator’s double-take and surprise at such a claim, especially if he had presented it more as an ideological and aspirational statement rather than a blunt statement of facts.
Secondly, Ford’s answer gained significance primarily because it reinforced a widely held or known perception of him in the electorate – that he was notably out of touch with the real world.
Individual gaffes don’t typically lead to abrupt shifts in campaigns.
While they may receive enough attention to create such an impression at times, consider what kind of voter would change their stance due to a single misspoken answer.
Instead, character matters to voters in broad strokes.
Thus, off-hand remarks, like challenging Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet, might resonate because the candidate is generally perceived as wealthy and out of touch.
Campaign-defining moments can connect the dots in painting a picture of a candidate, but they function within a broader framework of expectations.
The second debate, focused on foreign policy, was seen as Ford’s domain to lose. Although foreign policy was supposed to be Ford’s forte throughout the campaign, his stumble on this issue made the gaffe all the more critical.
In comparison, every foreign policy misstatement by Herman Cain seemed less shocking and almost mundane after “Uz-beki-beki-beki-stan.”
In that sense, perhaps the 1976 debates were not as dull as they may seem.
While it’s challenging to listen to any candidate’s answers in their entirety, witnessing candidates who were somewhat unprepared for the demands of presidential campaigns is arguably more valuable than observing well-oiled campaigns that usher a candidate safely into the White House.
After all, those meticulously managed campaigns conceal any potential flaws.
Please note: A vice presidential debate took place in 1976, featuring Walter Mondale and Bob Dole.
While I could provide insights on it, I assumed this piece was already going to be lengthy enough that it might go unread.
If there is genuine interest in discussing the VP debates, kindly indicate, and I’ll be happy to provide further insights.
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