First Rule of Debates: Do No Harm

There’s a story that Don Hewitt, the executive producer of 60 Minutes, likes to tell about the 1960 presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.

As most students of presidential history know, the polls showed that among people listening to the radio, Nixon won the debate; among those watching on television, however, Kennedy was the winner. It was not what Nixon said but how he looked that cost him that debate and very possibly, the presidency.

The story is about how that happened. Hewitt, who produced the debate for television, had hired a makeup artist to do makeup for both candidates. Backstage, in advance of the debate, he introduced her to the two contenders, and asked them if they wanted her to do their makeup. “No,” Jack Kennedy immediately said.

What could Nixon do? It was one of those moments, man to man. If Kennedy was going to turn down makeup, so would Nixon.

So there was Nixon, with his shiny 5 o’clock shadow, looking vaguely sinister in the unforgiving light of television. And Kennedy? When he came out, Hewitt immediately noted that he was, indeed, wearing makeup. He’d put it on himself. He carried it with him for TV.

These days, both candidates bring their own makeup artists with them to debates. The details are carefully negotiated in advance — not only the stuff you hear about, like format and timing, but also the stuff you don’t, like whether the shorter candidate will stand on a box, and if so, how the cameras will be placed to ensure that it doesn’t show; and how high the podiums will be to ensure that one candidate doesn’t look taller than the other; and how the cameras will be placed, to protect the shorter candidate in the “two-shot.”

My big issues, going into the presidential debates of 1988 with Michael Dukakis, were twofold: how he would answer the Willie Horton question (he was supposed to talk about his own experiences as a victim of crime, the loss of his only brother to a hit-and-run driver who mowed him down on his bicycle; the robbery of his father, an elderly doctor at the time, whose office was broken into by robbers looking for drugs and who was gagged and bound by them after they got what they wanted); and whether he would get a new, expensive suit with shoulder pads.

He got the suit, but he literally missed the Willie Horton question. A close race became a rout. We were lucky it wasn’t worse. Some debates matter.

And some don’t. As I sit here, I can’t remember a single moment of the 2000 debates between Al Gore and George Bush, in the closest election in our history. There was no knockout punch. Bush held his own. That was important for him. He didn’t look at his watch, as his father so famously did in his debate with Bill Clinton eight years earlier, a gesture that was, in itself, almost as important as anything he said (although his inability to identify a single real person he knew, friend or family, who was suffering economically was a pretty close contender). In 2004, there wasn’t a single moment, but Bush’s poor performance at the first debate turned what at that point looked like a sure victory for him into a real horse race.

So what counts at debates, other than looking tall, wearing makeup, and getting a good suit?

First and foremost, like the Hippocratic oath, the imperative of all debates is not to make a mistake. Don’t get something wrong. Don’t suggest, if you’re president of the United States, as Gerald Ford was in 1976, that you don’t know that a country (it was Poland) is Communist. Don’t suggest, if you’re trying to prove that you are as ready as the former vice president to be commander-in-chief (as Senator Gary Hart was in 1984), that you’ll look inside the windows of a suspicious plane before deciding whether to issue the order to shoot it down.

Both Obama and McCain have been on the trail for a long time. I’m sure to them, it feels like a lifetime. Biden and Palin — he because he has a tendency to say more than he should, and she because she’s new to the game — are more likely to make mistakes, which is why the campaign negotiators have opted for a much more controlled format for the vice presidential debate.

I don’t expect either Obama or McCain to make an out-and-out mistake. I don’t expect them to look at their watches, or head off on a long ride up the California coast, as Ronald Reagan did in his first debate against Walter Mondale, a trip to nowhere that led news organizations, for the first and only time, to raise the question of whether he was too old for the job (a question Reagan handily disposed of in the second debate — in that way he had — by joking that he wasn’t going to make his opponent’s age an issue).

The second rule of debates is the very opposite of avoiding mistakes. Engage. Engage means you show energy. McCain can’t look tired. He needs to look vital. Obama can’t sound like he’s giving a rally speech, or a sermon in church, or, worst of all, talking like some Harvard type. Don’t yawn (McCain). Don’t condescend (Obama). And by all means, with all due respect (which, as a judge I appear in front of regularly, always notes means no respect at all), go on the attack.

If nothing else happens, whoever gets off the best shots at the other guy will be considered the winner. Quick, targeted hits are the best. “Where’s the beef?” Mondale asked of Hart in 1984, after my friend Bob Beckel explained the popular commercial that the candidate himself had never seen.

“I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. And, Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” the late Sen. Lloyd Bentsen so famously said, in his 1988 debate with Dan Quayle, generating the “deer in the headlights” look from Quayle that was almost as telling as the jab itself.

“Watch for Dan Quayle to compare himself to Jack Kennedy,” I told then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who had flown from Little Rock to Omaha to be our chief “spinner” after the debate, before he took his seat in the audience. No, the line wasn’t rehearsed, I would explain to people for years afterward. But in rehearsals, when Ohio Rep. Dennis Eckart, who was playing Quayle, answered my "experience" question by comparing himself to Kennedy, Bentsen was genuinely taken aback and asked me ("with your permission," he said) if he could take him on for that comparison, since Jack Kennedy was a friend of his, and he thought Dan Quayle was no Jack Kennedy.

Was he actually a friend of yours, I asked the senator, born fact-checker that I am. "B.A. (Mrs. Bentsen) and I went to his wedding," Bentsen said. More than enough for me. Go for it, I said, as if he needed my permission.

Then I prayed that Quayle would do the comparison. When he did, the debate was over. Bill Clinton and I had a good time at that one. Unfortunately, it did much more for Bentsen’s reputation than it did for the Dukakis-Bentsen ticket, which may tell you more than you want to know about the ability of a Number Two to save, or doom, the Number One.

Lots of people watch Presidential debates. No question. But they also go to the bathroom, or the refrigerator, or put the kids to bed when they get a little dull, as they often do. What people watch even more than the debate itself is any "moment" within it that makes "good television." The recap matters more than the debate as a whole. The "moment" that the press chooses to show over and over is what defines debates.

That’s why attacking matters. Everyone pays attention to the attack. But effectively deflecting the attack can be even better, if done right, than doing the attacking. In their one presidential debate in 1980, Jimmy Carter was loaded for bear on all the ridiculous things Ronald Reagan had ever said (remember trees causing pollution), on all the promises he had made that were just plain impossible to keep (you can’t balance the budget by cutting taxes and raising defense spending, as David Stockman, Reagan’s OMB director, himself knew).

But Reagan made Carter look like the fool, rather than the other way around. "There you go again," he said with a smile, as if he was dealing with a mildly addled distant relation. I’m ready to predict, here and now, that if Biden launches into a litany of the Democratic talking points about Sarah Palin – the bridge to nowhere and the library books and her state trooper ex-brother-in-law whose boss she fired when he refused to fire him – that she'll give him a big smile and quote Ronald Reagan, before asking whether Biden is really saying that a guy who tasered his own 12-year-old kid is the kind of person we want out there with a real gun in his hands.

In that debate, Biden will be in a much tougher position than Palin, and if he does anything that remotely smacks of condescension, he’ll lose. That much anticipated confrontation could turn out to be a snoozer. Biden will attack McCain, not Palin. Palin just has to avoid making a mistake, and that will be enough – along with a few zingers – for her side to claim victory.

In 1980, there were a whole lot of Americans who wanted to vote against Jimmy Carter. The economy was in terrible shape. The hostages in Iran were nearing the one-year mark, and Nightline was not Nightline but "America Held Hostage Day 300 and something." The president’s big message was that it wasn’t his fault but ours: Americans were suffering not from a lack of leadership, but from our own "malaise."

The Democratic Party was still torn in pieces after a primary battle that didn’t really end until the Convention. The first "Unity Dinner" was in October. But the race was still close, going into the debate, because there was real concern about Ronald Reagan: Was this former actor, who really had said that trees cause pollution, and really was spouting an economic plan that his running mate, George Bush the first, had labeled as "voodoo economics" during the primaries, actually up to the job?

Reagan didn’t have to win the debate. All he really needed to do was survive it, prove that he was a viable alternative, giving people a safe vote against Carter. I was in Florida working for Carter. It was the first time I understood what it felt like to have the bottom fall out under a candidacy. Eight years later, I felt it again, in the wake of Bernard Shaw’s famous question to Gov. Dukakis about whether he would favor an irrevocable death penalty if someone raped and killed his wife Kitty.

That was the Willie Horton question. He was supposed to give the answer Bill Clinton and I had both memorized, about the brother and the father and knowing what it’s like to be a victim of crime. He didn’t see it. The bottom fell out. Some debates are like that.

And, frankly, some aren’t. If nothing happens Friday night, if both candidates avoid mistakes and do their stuff, taking a jab here and there, doing a version of the lines that will put the reporters who’ve been covering them all this time into a full stupor, then this race will look exactly the same next week as it does this week.

A final axiom of debates is the very simple rule that if nothing happens, everybody watching will tell you that their candidate won. The Obama people will say, to a person, that Obama won. The Drudge Report will headline all the focus groups that show McCain as the victor. The Huffington Post will say, in every way it can, that it was a great night for Obama. And the swing voters in swing states who will actually decide this election will go back to watching baseball, and all those series premieres that we political junkies have been too busy to see.

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first female president of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for