When Their Power Failed
The Carter-Ford Debates
(TIME, October 4, 1976) -- With no strong issues really gripping the public, with a great deal of apathy hanging over the voters, the '76 presidential contest has become mostly a test of personality and character. Just which man -- Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter -- has the temper, courage, determination and cool to lead the nation? The answer was supposed to be forthcoming in the much-anticipated first presidential debate of 1976. It turned out to be an underwhelming event, the debate in which the power failed and in which neither man gained a decisive edge. The situation after the 90-minute confrontation - interrupted by a 27 minute audio blowout that was a testament to the fallibilities of television -- was much the same as before. Carter was out front but slipping; Ford was coming up from behind, and the election had suddenly turned into a close race.
Carter badly needs to be born again; this time politically. He has been off on a gaffe-a-week streak, and he can scarcely afford another week like the past two. His remarks on sex in an ill-advised interview with Playboy, his gratuitous insult in listing Lyndon Johnson along with Richard Nixon as a President who had "lied" to the American people, the distortion of his confused and confusing remarks on tax policy - all these and more have hurt him. He has also been damaged by some disarray in his campaign organization and disputes between his Atlanta headquarters and the Democratic old pros in Washington, as well as between his local officials and his campaign chiefs in some states (most of whom had been brought in from other states to stand above local rivalries). Moreover, Carter may be hurt because in a number of contests for Senator or Governor, Republicans have fielded strong candidates or Democrats have fielded weak ones. This is the case in California, Illinois, Rhode Island, Indiana and Missouri.
In sum, Carter is still ahead, but his base of "sure" states has been declining. On the other hand, Ford could just as easily lose his recent gains. In a year of voter indecision and general indifference, quick and sharp fluctuations in sentiment are more likely than not.
After all of the buildup and suspense, the televised clash in the pressure-pot atmosphere of Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theater failed to crystallize voter opinion. Each man pointedly assailed the other at times. But neither seemed eager for - and the non-debate format prevented - a direct and personal showdown. The language was occasionally tough, yet both candidates seemed wary of breaking any new ground. Perhaps having overstudied the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates and apparently intent on showing how knowledgeable they were, both candidates threw out briefing-book statistics in baffling profusion. But, unlike John Kennedy, they rarely marshaled the numbers to establish a more general point. The questioning from the panel of reporters concentrated heavily on taxes, budget balancing and economic policy - vital but dry topics.
Yet the trouble was not so much that the candidates used facts and figures, but that they used too many for quick understanding and yet not enough for really thorough exposition. Besides, they tended to talk past each other, with the arguments only rarely meshing.
Millions of viewers failed to hear out the candidates. The initial Nielsen survey of viewers in the New York City area showed that 73% of households had their TV sets turned on at the beginning of the debate (although a small percentage of these were watching a baseball or hockey game on local channels); this fell to 65.8% after one hour and to 54.2% in the middle of the audio breakdown. The 27-minute sound cutoff, caused by failure in one of ABC's audio amplifiers in a trailer outside the theater, was acutely embarrassing to the network. It was even more awkward for the candidates.
Carter was just launching into a denunciation of intrusions into the privacy of U.S. citizens by the CIA and FBI during the Republican administrations when all networks lost their pooled sound, provided by ABC. At the time, an enlivened Carter was scoring against a somewhat fading Ford. Incredibly, no one invited the debaters to leave their statuesque positions and await the resumption in comfort. Each avoided looking at the other. Breaking the stand-up standoff first, Carter after twelve minutes sat down on his tall stool behind the podium and folded his arms across his chest. This brought shouts of "Yay!" from the 500 balcony observers. When both men, after quickly glancing at each other, wiped their brows with handkerchiefs, the audience applauded. Ford remained standing until the sound resumed.
When the candidates finally had a chance to summarize their cases, Carter's impressive windup raised an intriguing question: What if each man had been offered a chance to open the debate with a similar thematic appeal, as Kennedy had done so effectively in 1960? Carter's sum-up was a honed version of his successful campaign pitch. "It's a time to draw ourselves together . . . with mutual respect for a change, cooperating for a change, in the open for a change. So the people can understand their own Government ... I don't claim to know all the answers. But I've got confidence in my country. Our economic strength is still there. Our system of government - in spite of Vietnam, Cambodia, CIA, Watergate - is still the best system of government on earth."
Ford ended his summary in more prosaic terms, with a political barb: "A President should never promise more than he can deliver and a President should always deliver everything that he's promised. A President can't be all things to all people. A President should be the same thing to all people ... I think the real issue in this campaign, and that which you must decide on Nov. 2, is whether you should vote for his promises or my performance in two years in the White House."
By that time, unfortunately, the speakers had lost a chunk of their audience. Few viewers who had sat through the first 82 minutes could claim that they had gained refreshing new insights into economic problems and policies. Said Harvard's Otto Eckstein, a liberal member of TIME's Board of Economists: "I've got to teach freshman economics on Monday and I'd be hard put to find something useful in the debate to teach them. The candidates just completely missed a grand educational opportunity." Yale's Robert Triffin, another member of TIME's Board, found the debate "desperately dull and desperately uninformative." A top industrial economist was even harsher: "Neither of them would have passed Economics 1." Perhaps because they were intent on winning political points, both men seemed shallower on the economic issues than they have in past statements.
Other academicians and politicians interviewed by TIME correspondents generally saw no clear winner. "I wouldn't think either man was damaged," said Louis Koenig, professor of government at New York University. Historian Theodore Kovaleff of Barnard College disagreed: "Carter went in a clear leader and he came out looking terribly poor." Asked who won, Northwestern University Political Scientist Louis Masotti replied with a derisive comment on the audio breakdown, "The Luddites," a reference to the early 19th century workers who smashed machines in protest against industrialization. Added Masotti: "Carter came across as a Southern Baptist preacher, and Ford was reciting high school platitudes. I may not go to the polls in November. I just can't get up for this." Douglas Fraser, director of the United Auto Workers' political arm, predictably thought Carter came off all right, but no better: "He didn't have to win. He just had to be credible and I think he showed that."
The most enthusiasm expressed for Carter's performance came from the Democratic majority leader of the House of Representatives, Massachusetts' Thomas ("Tip") O'Neill: "I thought Carter creamed him." Independent Candidate Eugene McCarthy, who was not allowed to participate in the debate, gave it a typically sardonic review. It was, he said, "like a bad baseball game where after seven innings everybody wants to go home." Observed George Reedy, who was Lyndon Johnson's press secretary: "The President was probably helped because he gave the appearance of competence. Carter was probably helped because he gave the appearance of compassion. But I don't think this changes the equation one bit."
Who did win? The figures were hardly decisive, but an early nationwide sampling of opinion gave a slight edge to Ford. Telephoning 1,065 voters, the Associated Press found 34.4% thought he had won, 31.8% considered Carter the winner and 33.8% either figured it a tie or had no opinion. (Statistically, this sample carries a possible error of 2.9%.) A Louis Harris/ABC News poll taken the day after the debate also showed that viewers, by a narrow margin, thought Ford had won. Also, according to Harris, Carter had led Ford 52%-39% before the debate, but slipped to a 50%-41% margin afterward. It was almost as though the candidates had heard and heeded the advice of anthropologist Margaret Mead. She phoned Carter adman Gerald Rafshoon a few days before the debate to urge: "Style over substance. Style over substance."
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