WHEN ‘FORD FREED POLAND’

In 1976, Ger­ald Ford and Jimmy Carter faced off, set­ting up tele­vised tra­di­tion and fly­ing a warn­ing flag for can­di­dates to come SINCE IN­FA­MOUS FLUB, DE­BATE AU­DI­ENCES HAVE WATCHED IN HOPES OF CAM­PAIGN-DE­CID­ING KNOCK­OUT

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Rick Hampson @rick­hamp­son USA TO­DAY

“We al­ways learn some­thing big about can­di­dates that we didn’t ex­pect to learn. There’s no for­mula to guar­an­tee you won’t flub it. So be­ware!” Carter run­ning mate Wal­ter Mon­dale

A pres­i­den­tial de­bate feels less like De­bate Night than Fight Night, one legacy of a show­down that oc­curred when most of this year’s au­di­ence was too young to vote.

As Don­ald Trump and Hil­lary Clin­ton pre­pare for their open­ing de­bate Sept. 26 in Hemp­stead, N.Y., an­other con­test 40 years ago of­fers a cau­tion­ary tale about what can go wrong.

In 1976, Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford, who’d chal­lenged Demo­cratic nom­i­nee Jimmy Carter to a tele­vised de­bate, was fig­u­ra­tively knocked out — by his own punch.

In­ex­pli­ca­bly, the pres­i­dent said Eastern Europe was not dom­i­nated by the Soviet Union, which in fact had three army divi­sions in Poland alone. In Novem­ber, he lost by a hair. “We won the elec­tion that night,’’ says Carter’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion di­rec­tor, Ger­ald Raf­shoon.

Ever since, many Amer­i­cans have watched these gen­eral elec­tion de­bates with dry mouths and moist palms, as if ring­side at a heavy­weight bout. They’ve waited (largely in vain) for some­thing like 1976, when, Carter run­ning mate Wal­ter Mon­dale still jokes, “Ford freed Poland.’’ Alan Schroeder, au­thor of Pres­i­den­tial De­bates: 50 Years of

High-Risk TV, says, “Ev­ery­body wants their guy to land a knock­out blow” — a faux pas or zinger that will de­cide not only the de­bate but the elec­tion. NEW TRA­DI­TION BORN Although the de­bates in 1976 are known for Ford’s gaffe, they also es­tab­lished an ex­tra-con­sti­tu­tional po­lit­i­cal tra­di­tion: Every four au­tumns, the ma­jor pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nees stand on an au­di­to­rium stage for 90 min­utes be­fore a live au­di­ence, an­swer­ing ques­tions.

Many peo­ple think that tra­di­tion started in 1960, with John Kennedy and Richard Nixon. But those de­bates were the last for 16 years. And Kennedy and Nixon de­bated in a TV stu­dio with no au­di­ence. They sat down when not speak­ing, and they went for only 60 min­utes.

Nei­ther of the de­baters in 1960 was the in­cum­bent. It still wasn’t clear whether the com­man­der in chief had to de­bate, or should. In 1964, ’68 and ’72, Pres­i­dents Lyn­don John­son and Nixon, who didn’t want to de­bate for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons, avoided do­ing so at no po­lit­i­cal cost.

That’s one rea­son 1976 was so ironic: Ford didn’t have to de­bate. He stum­bled on for­eign pol­icy, which both cam­paigns con­sid­ered his forte, de­spite hav­ing prac­ticed far more rig­or­ously than Carter.

All of which might give pause to the Clin­ton and Trump cam­paigns, which are de­ter­mined to pre­pare for every con­tin­gency and con­trol every de­tail.

“We al­ways learn some­thing big about can­di­dates that we didn’t ex­pect to learn,” says Mon­dale, who par­tic­i­pated in the pres­i­den­tial de­bates of 1984 and the in­au­gu­ral vice pres­i­den­tial de­bate in 1976. “There’s no for­mula to guar­an­tee you won’t flub it. So be­ware!” ‘NO RED FLAG’ AF­TER GAFFE In the sum­mer of 1976, Ford was in po­lit­i­cal trou­ble.

He was pres­i­dent only be­cause Nixon re­signed dur­ing the Water­gate scan­dal. Ford alien­ated many vot­ers by par­don­ing Nixon, and he barely sur­vived a pri­mary chal­lenge by Ron­ald Rea­gan. Af­ter the Demo­cratic con­ven­tion, he trailed Carter in polls by more than 30 per­cent­age points.

Ford de­cided he needed to de­bate Carter, who’d hoped to de­bate all along, and in­serted a chal­lenge into the pre­pared text of his con­ven­tion speech.

Af­ter weeks of the sort of hag­gling over the de­tails that would it­self be­come a tra­di­tion, the fall de­bates (un­der the aus­pices of the League of Women Vot­ers) were set for Philadel­phia, San Fran­cisco and Williams­burg, Va., at the Col­lege of Wil­liam & Mary.

Ford, the less tele­genic can­di­date, pre­pared ac­cord­ingly. He be­came the first such de­bate con­tes­tant to prac­tice with sim­u­lated TV con­di­tions — lights, cam­eras, makeup and record­ings of op­po­nent’s speeches. Ses­sions were taped and played back. “I spent nine hours un­der the lights,’’ he re­called.

Carter, con­versely, pored over brief­ing books — even cor­rect­ing ty­pos and fix­ing gram­mar — but re­fused to par­tic­i­pate in mock de­bates; they seemed con­trived. Raf­shoon re­calls sit­ting with him at a ho­tel in Philadel­phia, pos­ing ques­tions he might ex­pect from the me­dia panel. In­stead of re­hears­ing his an­swers, Carter would just say, “I’ve got that.’’

When the de­bate be­gan, Carter’s first ques­tion was a soft­ball about the econ­omy. He choked, giv­ing a fact-laden an­swer with the spon­tane­ity and en­thu­si­asm of a ro­bot. It was “as dread­ful as one could pos­si­bly imag­ine,’’ in the sub­se­quent opin­ion of his aide Stu­art Eizen­stat.

But the de­bate would be re­mem­bered not for a hu­man mis­take but a tech­ni­cal one. While more than half the na­tion’s house­holds watched, sud­denly the sound went out. As tech­ni­cians strug­gled to fix the prob­lem, the can­di­dates stood there for 27 min­utes, not talk­ing, not mov­ing, not even glanc­ing at each other. They both looked like ro­bots.

Ford, by most ac­counts, won the de­bate. Carter said later that he felt over­whelmed; he’d never even met a pres­i­dent be­fore.

The se­cond de­bate would fo­cus on for­eign pol­icy, Carter’s sup­posed weak­ness. A Carter cam­paign memo had cau­tioned against at­tack­ing the pres­i­dent: “Ford has to beat him­self.’’

He did, about 20 min­utes into the de­bate. Ford was asked about the 1975 Helsinki Ac­cords, an at­tempt to im­prove re­la­tions be­tween the com­mu­nist Eastern Bloc and the Western democ­ra­cies that was un­pop­u­lar with many Amer­i­cans of Eastern Euro­pean de­scent.

What Ford meant to say: The United States didn’t of­fi­cially ac­cept or diplo­mat­i­cally rec­og­nize Soviet dom­i­na­tion of Eastern Europe.

What Ford ac­tu­ally said: “There is no Soviet dom­i­na­tion of Eastern Europe, and there never will be un­der the Ford ad­min­is­tra­tion.” The ques­tioner, Max Frankel of

The New York Times, ap­peared un­able to be­lieve his ears. He gave Ford a chance to re­verse him­self:

“Did I un­der­stand you to say, sir, that the Rus­sians are not us­ing Eastern Europe as their own sphere of in­flu­ence?”

Ford dug in deeper. “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 na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor, Brent Scowcroft, was back­stage. “We have a prob­lem,” he said.

Carter pounced: “I’d like to see Mr. Ford con­vince Pol­ish Amer­i­cans and Czech Amer­i­cans and Hun­gar­ian Amer­i­cans that those coun­tries don’t live un­der the su­per­vi­sion and con­trol of the Soviet Union be­hind the Iron Cur­tain.’’

Then the de­bate moved on. It seemed the mo­ment might pass. TV an­chors, in­clud­ing Wal­ter Cronkite on CBS, did not fea­ture the com­ment in their re­caps. In Ford’s limou­sine after­ward, no one men­tioned the gaffe, ac­cord­ing to Ron Nessen, Ford’s press sec­re­tary. Sec­re­tary of State Henry Kissinger called to com­pli­ment Ford on his per­for­mance. He went to sleep think­ing he’d done fine. “There was no red flag,” Nessen re­calls. DAM­AGE BE­COMES CLEAR The next morn­ing, the news­pa­pers were full of sto­ries about Ford’s gaffe. Carter was on the at­tack. Pol­ish Amer­i­cans were in an up­roar.

Nessen went to see Ford to urge him to “clar­ify” — ad­mit his mis­take. “I’ll never for­get how he looked or sounded,’’ he re­calls. “He said, ‘ I’m not in­clined to do that.’ ”

Sev­eral days later, as the gaffe dom­i­nated cam­paign news cov­er­age, Ford fi­nally backed down — off cam­era — and ad­mit­ted he’d mis­spo­ken.

The dam­age was done: Ford the de­bater was Ford the bum­bler that Chevy Chase por­trayed on Satur­day Night Live.

Nessen says he’s never un­der­stood why Ford didn’t cor­rect his er­ror and cut his losses. Nor does Mon­dale: “He was a good friend. I never asked him.”

In his mem­oirs, Ford wrote, “I can be very stub­born when I think I’m right, and I didn’t want to apol­o­gize for some­thing that was a mi­nor mis­take.” The more aides asked him to, the an­grier he got. “I don’t know why I was so stub­born,” he con­fessed.

Be­fore the de­bate, Ford was gain­ing fast on Carter. After­ward, Ford poll­ster Robert Teeter said, “we were stopped cold.’’

Still, it’s im­pos­si­ble to blame the gaffe for Ford’s de­feat. At the end of Oc­to­ber, polls showed the two can­di­dates in a dead heat. Schol­ars agree that most pres­i­den­tial de­bates don’t have a ma­jor im­pact on gen­eral elec­tion out­comes.

But a de­bate per­for­mance can shape a rep­u­ta­tion. On YouTube, Ge­orge H.W. Bush (1992) will for­ever glance im­pa­tiently at his watch. Al Gore (2000) will al­ways emit petu­lant sighs. Richard Nixon will al­ways have a 5 o’clock shadow.

And Ford will al­ways deny Soviet dom­i­na­tion of Eastern Europe. But for a quar­ter-cen­tury now, he’s been right.

AP FILE PHOTO

Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford, right, and Jimmy Carter shake hands be­fore their de­bate at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre on Oct. 6, 1976, in San Fran­cisco.

DAVID LONGSTREAT­H, AP

Pres­i­dent Rea­gan, left, and Wal­ter Mon­dale take part in a de­bate in Kansas City, Mo., on Oct. 22, 1984.

AP

Pres­i­dent Ford chal­lenged Jimmy Carter to de­bate on tele­vi­sion, a fate­ful de­ci­sion for Ford’s elec­tion prospects.

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