Archive for the ‘1976 Presidential Election’ Category

DEBATES CENTRAL TO 1976 CAMPAIGN

Thursday, February 28th, 2019

By Barry Jagoda

In the election year of 1976, presidential candidates Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford agreed to a historic resumption of presidential campaign debates, which had not been held since the famous contests between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960.

The leading academic authority on presiden
tial debates, Professor Sidney Kraus of Cleveland State University, wrote, “Just as the Kennedy-Nixon confrontations were credited with tipping the balance in favor of the Democratic challenger, the Carter- Ford debates were instrumental in securing Carter’s slim margin of victory” 16 years later.

“The debates were a central element in the 1976 election,” Carter told Kraus. “As perhaps nothing else could have, they provided an opportunity for the American people to weigh the merits of the candidates. President Ford had come to office only two years before, without
a chance to define his views in a national campaign.  I had never held national office and was relatively unknown.”

Ford told an audience at the University of Michigan, “I think the fact that we did debate … makes a strong case for their being held in the future.” And so they have been, with faceoffs held every four years, down to the present.

Inside the Carter-Mondale campaign we saw debates not only as an important chance for our challenger to be present on the same stage with the incumbent, but also as a good opportunity to show the American people the lightning mind of Jimmy 
Carter. Though there was 
the normal apprehension
about such highly focused
 events, the Carter campaign
 was prepared to win, with the
normal confidence we all had in Carter’s
ability to prevail in such a contest. The chance to get a level playing field with President Ford was welcome.

The debate’s sponsor, the League of Women Voters, had chosen various sites around the country at locations with some historic importance. Philadelphia had been a natural choice for the Bicentennial year. San Francisco, site of the signing of the United Nations charter, was selected for the second debate because the subject was to be foreign policy. Two other venues turned up that were just right for the vice presidential debate and for the final presi- dential encounter: The Alley Theater in Houston and Phi Beta Kappa Hall on the campus of the College of William and Mary, respectively.

Our entire campaign staff, led by Hamilton Jordan, went into preparation mode. Briefing materials were overseen and provided by Carter’s principal policy advisor, Stuart Eizenstat, with input from many sources. Once the “briefing books” had been prepared, candidate Carter took possession of them for exhaustive study. Normal campaign events were put on hold for several days prior to each encounter, giving our candidate plenty of time to review the great issues of the day.

Staff members, led by Jody Powell, turned to logis- tics. In addition to Powell, Carter’s debate negotiators included media advisor Gerald Rafshoon and television advisor Barry Jagoda, author of this article. As we met with a team from the Ford campaign, a principal issue for us was to ensure that the two debaters would appear on stage equally—no presidential seal for Ford, no television coverage showing a 6-foot-tall Ford looming over our 5-9 candidate, and no questioners who might show favoritism. In a series of pre-debate encounters, representatives of the two candidates were able to work out such issues.

In the first debate, held on Sept. 23 at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia and moderated by the distin- guished NBC News broadcaster Edwin Newman, some will remember a 27-minute delay when the audio on the network (pool) broadcast went silent, for largely technicalreasons. Just as Jerry Rafshoon got ready to go on stage to brief Carter, the sound came back.

The second debate, moderated in San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts Theater on Oct. 6 by NPR’s Pauline Frederick, would be remembered for President Ford’s “gaffe.” Answering a question from Max Frankel of the New York Times, Ford asserted, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Responding vigorously, Carter said, “I would like to see Mr. Ford convince Polish- Americans and Czech-Americans and Hungarian-Americans that those countries do not live under the domination and supervision of the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain.” Ford’s comment and Carter’s rebuke overwhelmed anything else from the second debate and gave almost
 all fair observers the opportunity to say that Ford was the loser in the encounter. More than 70 million viewers had tuned in, and a few days later President Ford said
he had made a mistake in his characterization of the Soviets and Eastern Europe.

Just over a week later, on Oct. 15, Sen. Walter Mondale faced off against Sen. Robert Dole in the first-ever vice presidential debate, held on the stage of Houston’s Alley Theater. Post-debate polls indicated that partisans of each ticket would claim victory in the contest. Dole had been known as a “hatchet man,” and Mondale had a reputation as a strong-minded, ethical, even-handed political figure.

An estimated 45 million viewed the Mondale-Dole debate. Then, as now, we in the Carter-Mondale campaign camp were certain that Sen. Mondale had well advanced chances for our ticket.

Barbara Walters moderated the final debate, Oct. 22 at the College
of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. The questioners were syndi- cated columnist Joseph Kraft, Washington Post editorial writer Robert Maynard, and Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief Jack Nelson. Televised in 113 nations around the globe, it reached another estimated 70 million Americans.
With the Nov. 2 Election Day then only 11 days away, the race had tightened. President Ford closed by asking the electorate to say, “Jerry Ford, you’ve done a good job, keep on doing it.” Gov. Carter, in his closing remarks, said, “Mr. Ford is a good and decent man, but he’s beenin office now more than 800 days, almost as long as John Kennedy was in office. I’d like to ask the American people what’s been accomplished? A lot remains to be done.”

The rest, as is said, belongs to history.

About the author: Barry Jagoda was Jimmy Carter’s television advisor during the 1976 campaign and special assistant to the president for media and public affairs in the White House. Earlier he had been an award-winning writer and producer at NBC News and CBS News. Later he was a high technology media executive and recently retired as director of communications at the University of California, San Diego. With his wife, Karen, Jagoda resides in La Jolla, California.