2:30 P.M. EDT
THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for joining us at the Foreign Press Center, we really appreciate your participation so far, and we hope you had a good lunch. We’re going to continue our tour this afternoon with Mike McCurry, and we are very honored to have him here this afternoon. He is a board member of the Commission on President Debate, and as you probably know, Mr. McCurry was also a spokesperson not only for the State Department but also for the White House. So he’s very familiar with this podium as well as the podium at the White House. And he’s going to give us some background then on the – and context on the presidential debates – the first one that you’re going to see in Denver on October 3rd. So without further ado, Mike.
MR. MCURRY: Thank you, Dick, and welcome to everybody. You’ve quite a distinguished group here. I was just looking at the list of you all and where you’re from and the countries that you represent, and it’s really a very, very impressive group. And I can say I honestly do enjoy standing here at this podium when I’m standing in front of you, but the times that I’ve been here in the past I’ve had a bunch of very snarly State Department reporters asking questions because I used to enjoy coming here from time to time to do the daily State Department press briefing here, which would make it more accessible to some of the foreign journalists that worked here at the foreign media center. And it used to always aggravate the regular State Department reporters because they had to leave their little cubicles over at the main State Department and come over here to this part of town. But I thought it was good for them to actually meet some of their colleagues and foreign journalists. So it’s a pleasure to be here.
I’ve got many stories that I could tell you. As Dick just mentioned, I had two different jobs in the Clinton Administration. And I told President Clinton one time that of the two jobs that he gave me, which were arguably among the best press spokesman jobs here in Washington – White House Press Secretary and State Department Spokesman – of the two, the job that I much preferred at the end was being State Department spokesman because it was a more interesting, challenging assignment in some ways, much less political than what we encountered day in and day out at the White House, and by far a nicer group of journalists to work with and travel around the world with. So he was always surprised to hear that, that it was more fun to actually be at the State Department than at the White House.
But those experiences for me came out of about 35 years working in our political system here in the United States. So I started working as a young press secretary up on Capitol Hill in the United States Senate, and then I worked for a variety of presidential candidates and for the National Democratic Party. Obviously, I’m a lifelong Democrat. But my role now as I’ve kind of graduated out of the day-to-day political world is to really think about how we can enhance our democratic process of self-government here in the United States by improving the quality of the debates that we have between our major candidates. The one that you will see is the first, of course, in this election cycle. It’ll be next Wednesday in Denver.
But let me give you a little of the history about how we got to the place where candidates like Governor Romney and President Obama will come together and exchange views and debate the issues of the day. It wasn’t always certain that we would have that kind of participation. The first – for those of you who are familiar with U.S. history, the first televised debate between candidates occurred between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in 1960, and it was a momentous occasion. Many people felt that it really changed the course of that campaign, because John F. Kennedy came off looking very smooth and suave and cool and Richard Nixon did not. Many people credited that debate with having been very important in advancing President Kennedy’s ability to capture the office.
Well, I think partly because of the complications and because this new thing of television was scary to people, there was not another televised debate between presidential candidates in the United States until 1976. That’s when Jimmy Carter debated. And it was probably for pretty good reason that they did not willingly participate because they are very high-risk, very high-tension type events for the candidates themselves. A lot is riding on it when you have an audience of millions and millions of Americans watching – sometimes, in fact, people who are not yet decided who they’re going to vote for. And watching the candidates debate and watching them run the risk of making some kind of serious mistake or misstatement puts fear in the hearts of a lot of presidential campaigns. In fact, that 1976 debate between President Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, the Governor of Georgia, produced kind of a complicated moment for President Ford because he suggested that people who were living then in Eastern Europe were not necessarily under domination by the then Soviet Union. That became a big ongoing issue, and many people thought that, in fact, turned the course of that campaign.
But over the years, because the American people really deserve to hear from the candidates, and along in the time there were academic studies done by political scientists who said it was important for the American political process to have an opportunity to see the candidates engage each other, answer questions, raise points for and against each other, and really have a conversation about the future of the country – that in fact, all the experts said the American people need to have that if we’re going to have a fully functioning democracy.
So in the late 1980s the question arose, well, how can we make sure that the candidates will actually come and participate in these debates? And at the time, the two chairpersons of our national political parties, Paul Kirk for the Democratic Party and Frank Fahrenkopf for the Republican Party, said, well, we’ll take it on ourselves as the leaders of the two respective major parties to create an independent commission, nonpartisan, that will have a cross-membership of different types of people who come from different walks of political life with different political philosophies, and they will take it upon themselves to organize and set up the debates each four years so that the presidential candidates will know for certain there will be some opportunity for them to debate.
At first, it was a little – some questions about this. There was skepticism about this process – would it work? And there were questions about whether the formats and the opportunity to debate would really be fair to both sides. In some cases, the campaigns themselves negotiated back and forth over details and there would sometimes be kind of a running debate about the debates. How would they happen, and would so-and-so participate, or would so-and-so try to take a pass on the invitation? But I think over time it just has developed as almost an institution in our functioning democracy that’s similar to some of the other big moments that we experience as Americans in the life – the political life of our country. I think of the inaugurations of our presidents that happen at the U.S. Capitol, the annual State of the Union address, which the President gives to a combined session of the House and the Senate in our United States Congress. And along with those types of events, these debates have become sort of the very solemn, dignified moments that it gets very serious about the choice that we the people of the United States have to make about who our political leadership will be.
So this time around in 2012, there’s been very little nervous negotiating between the two campaigns. Both Governor Romney and President Obama, I think, understand the significance of these debates. Both of those campaigns were pretty quick to say, yes, we will participate and we’ll show up at the appointed time. And so you’ll see the first of these debates on Wednesday night. And as you know if you’d been following some of the media coverage over the last couple of days, there are many people suggesting that this could be a fundamentally important moment in the course of this campaign, because Governor Romney has a lot riding on having a very successful night. President Obama seems to be gaining a little bit in the political polling that has been out there. And the question will be: What does this debate do to change the course or the shape or the content of the campaign to come?
Now, a little bit about what we’re doing to try to make this a better experience for all of those who will watch this debate and try to learn something about the candidates. In the past, we’ve had these remarkably structured debates in which one candidate gets 90 seconds to give an answer and the next – the other candidate gets 30 seconds to respond, and then the other candidate gets 10 seconds to rebut. And so it was a highly stylized, programmatic way in which the candidates debated. And of course, many of them came prepared with little mini-speeches that they would give and had all their talking points and their slogans all set up and ready to go, and it was sometimes distracting for the American people who were watching because it didn’t feel like a real debate. It felt like you had two candidates who were just standing up giving their own little speeches rather than actually engaging in some genuine conversation about the major issues that the country faced.
So we’ve thought about that a lot in the course of preparing for this presidential election cycle, and we’ve developed a new format, which you will see for the first time at the debate that you’ll watch in Denver. And it involves one of our moderators, Jim Lehrer, the venerable longtime moderator of these debates from the Public Broadcasting Network. He will introduce six different topics, and over the course of 15 minutes, the candidates will discuss each topic. And I think as the format is supposed to go, Mr. Lehrer will pose an initial question to either Governor Romney or President Obama. They’ll probably do a coin toss or something to decide who goes first. Each of them will get a minute or two to respond to that question, and then there’ll be an extended period in which we hope Governor Romney and President Obama will actually look at each other and really debate their different points of view.
As you know from watching the debates so far, they don’t agree on very much. And so we are expecting that this format will produce a much more lively, engaging exchange. You’ll be the judge of that so you can – I’ll be out there and along with you and probably in that filing center. So you can come up and tell me afterwards whether you thought it worked or not, because I would be interested in what your reaction is as neutral observers from outside our political process.
But I think what I expect is going to happen is that once they get beyond kind of their prepared, rehearsed lines, they really are going to have to look at each other and say we do have some fundamental differences in philosophy, in the way we think the role of government should be in the United States, what should the role of the private sector and the free market be versus what should the government do to take care of the common good that affects the American people. And there is significant enough ideological difference between these two candidates that I think it’ll be a very genuine and good debate.
Sometimes those who come from systems like many of you do that have a range of viewpoints across the political spectrum think that American politics is really – that one side is not that different from the other side, that they seem to have more or less the same points of view on many important questions. But I think uniquely in this campaign year, there really are some fundamental ideological and political differences between the viewpoints of these two candidates and their two parties.
Now, one other point I’d like to make because I think it’s important, we have two major political parties in the United States, as you know, unlike many of your countries that have a multiplicity of parties with very, very different viewpoints and different political programs and agendas. Now, we do have third parties in our country. We have minor parties and candidates that represent all sorts of points of view. There are, in fact, 140 candidates running for president of the United States right now who are on file at the Federal Election Commission and have properly put their paperwork in to run for president. So we have to have some – how do you decide who will actually participate? You can’t have a debate with 140 people, so you can’t invite everyone.
We had to develop some independent criteria to really establish who would actually get the invitation to participate. And so our criteria are simple. First, the candidate has to be constitutionally eligible to run for office, which means they have to be 35 years old and they have to be a citizen of the United States. Now, those of you who follow American politics, there is a fringe element in our politics that squawk a little bit about whether Barack Obama is, in fact, a natural born citizen of the United States, but that’s a sort of a sideshow debate that I think has more or less been resolved by most people who are sane.
Then the second criteria is that you have to be on the ballot in a sufficient number of states to theoretically win a victory in the electoral college. And that’s important, because as you know, we don’t elect our president by just whoever gets the most votes in the election. It’s a contest that really is run state by state, and each state has a certain number of votes that they cast for a president based on population, and winning the electoral college is really what winning the presidency is all about. That’s the reason now why you don’t see President Obama and Governor Romney campaigning all across the United States. They’re really down to about seven or eight really key states where the contest is very tight, and that’s probably where they will spend most of the next 40 days for the remainder of the campaign – Colorado being one of those states by the way.
And then the last criteria is they have to demonstrate some sufficient level of support so that there is a group of Americans that really are treating them as bona fide, serious candidates for president. And the threshold level we established was 15 percent. So in a series of polls across the country, if a candidate could indicate that they had at least 15 percent support – popular support in the American electorate, they would be invited.
So just recently before each of these debates, we apply the criteria and say who meets that test. Now, there are, in fact, five candidates who meet the first two, who are constitutionally eligible and have enough access to the ballot around the country that they could participate, but three of them don’t have a sufficient level of support – 15 percent – to cross that last threshold that they would need to be invited.
So a lot – this is controversial thing in our country. Some people say, well, wait a minute, you’re marginalizing the votes of someone like the Libertarian Party – their candidate Gary Johnson is one of those who doesn’t quite make the 15 percent threshold – or the Green Party, their candidate who does not have that sufficient level of support. And then there is a third current candidate, a former congressman from Virginia who’s also qualified on enough ballots that he could theoretically win the presidency. But none of those three have got a sufficient level of support. In fact, I think none of them get more than 1 percent in any of the polls that are being taken by the national polling organizations.
So it’s an important question, because I think in any thriving democracy – and many of you have experiences with this – you don’t want to marginalize voices that have maybe different points of view that are not within the mainstream of the political culture. There should be a diversity of opinion. There should be opportunities to hear dissident voices. And I think that’s a subject that’s important, because there have to be opportunities outside maybe these formal structured debates in which candidates can be heard. And within academic institutions and universities, and I think even within the confines of those who do diplomacy on the part of – on behalf the United States, we do try to make the point that there are a range of viewpoints in this country and it’s not totally dominated by just the two major national political parties.
Whether or not in our history we will see a different lineup of parties – from time to time there are independent candidacies that come forward. In fact, twice since the Commission on President Debates has been around, candidates representing different points of view have been invited – Ross Perot in 1992 and John Anderson in 1980. So there have been ways in which other candidates participate just beyond the Democratic candidate and the Republican candidate, but that is a fairly rare experience in the life of our country. I think that’s a different situation than many of you would face in some of the countries in which your own democracies are emerging, evolving, and taking shape.
The last thing I’ll say is that having an independent body sponsor these debates so that they’re not controlled by any group of established leaders or any power centers within our country – we’ve got a range of people who serve on the commission with me. They represent all walks of life from being former politicians to university presidents to community activists and leaders, and they do represent a very diverse cross-section of our country. Having that independent group in the position of saying this is the way that the debates should work, it takes it out of the hands of the politicians and takes it out of the hands of the people who run the campaigns and really says this is the kind of format that the American people deserve and that they need if they’re really going to hear the candidates discuss the issues that are important and decide what candidate would best represent their own views as they cast their ballot.
Now, a little bit just to kind of a preview of what you’ll see on Wednesday night. In fact, we’re in this – I don’t want to break news here, but we’re in the last stages of debating with the campaigns how the format will actually work. And the big question now is: Are they going to stand at a podium like this where I am standing, or are they going to sit at a table and discuss with the moderator the issues of the day? Some of that is still resolved, but I think for the first debate at least on Wednesday night, you’ll probably see them standing at a podium like this.
And it’s a different – if you can imagine, it’s probably a much different chemistry if you’re standing here and your opponent is standing at a similar podium right over there than if you’re sitting across from each other at a table having a conversation like you would at dinner. That creates a much different environment. We would sort of prefer them to see – see them seated at the table, but we’re still discussing those issues. And so I’m not sure what the second and third debates will look like, nor the debate – there will be actually a debate between the vice presidential candidates as well between Congressman Ryan and Vice President Biden.
But as far as that format that I described earlier, Jim Lehrer has announced the six topics that will be discussed at this debate on Wednesday are, first, the economy; second, the economy; third, the economy. So basically, the first 45 minutes of the debate will be on the issue that I think is probably what most Americans say is the one that most concerns them, the state of our economy. Why is unemployment so high? Why don’t we have sufficient job creation to take care of some of the needs of people who haven’t been able to find work? What are we going to do about that gigantic budget deficit, since in our system we are not raising enough in taxes to pay for the amount of government that the American people want? So how are we going to balance the budget? What are we going to do to stimulate investment? How can we get new businesses to get started? These are all questions that I anticipate you will hear Mr. Lehrer put before President Obama and Governor Romney and they will, in each of those first three sections, debate that.
The fourth topic is health care. And if you have followed any of the debates here in our country, the history or the controversy around the health care reform act that was passed in the current congress – frequently called Obamacare – Governor Romney wants to repeal it, obviously President Obama wants to defend it. So you can anticipate a real textured conversation around health care and how Americans get access to doctors and medicine. And that will probably include debate about our social insurance program, Medicare, which is one of the ways in which the elderly receive care via the United States Government.
Then the fifth topic will be the role of government. And I think that’ll be a section very much along the lines of what I suggested earlier that you two have very different philosophies about what government should and should not do, so let’s explore that question. What should the proper role of government be?
And then finally the last topic, and the one that I think might produce the most insight, is governing. How do propose to actually do any of the things that you’ve just talked about? Our system, if you have followed recent political debates here in the United States, we are a very polarized, very divided country right now in terms of our elected leaders. And our Congress, which is now no longer in town – they’ve fled to go back to their districts so that the candidates can campaign – they have not been able to tackle a lot of the fundamentally important issues the country faces, because there is such division and such dysfunction within our system that the candidates and the elected leaders aren’t able to come together and figure out reasonable compromises on how to move forward. And we’ve been kind of stuck in that situation for quite some time now.
So I think that last section in the debate will really be about how well are we doing as a country in self-governing and in actually doing the things that by our traditions the American people expect of our elected leaders and what can be done to improve that system. I think that may be – and particularly for those of you who are watching this debate as foreign citizens – that might be the most interesting part of the debate.
But we’ll have to see. My job is just to sort of say the table is set, you all come and participate, and hopefully it will turn out well for the American people, because that’s the role that we play. I think with that I maybe will stop and I would love to hear your questions. You’re all very good and know how to pose good questions. And I will – you can ask me anything you would like about my political experiences or Bill Clinton or some of the work that I did as White House Press Secretary. I served as White House Press Secretary during a fairly zesty time in the history of our country. But it really is an honor to greet you here and particularly to have you here at what I think is a great facility that reaches out and tries to help foreign journalists based here in the United States cover our country for the rest of the world more effectively. So with that, thank you very much for having me here today.
MODERATOR: Okay. And we’ll go to questions. But before you ask your question, if you could, just identify yourself and your news organizations so Mr. McCurry knows where you’re coming from.
MR. MCURRY: And I think – do you have a microphone that you’re able to use?
MR. MCURRY: Great. Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: My name is Taher Zaruag. I’m from Libya. I work for Al-Assema, a satellite TV channel. This is the first presidential debate. In Libya, actually it is a new experiment for us, so we need to know more. I need to know how many debates are going to be and how this debate will go into effect (inaudible).
MR. MCCURRY: Good. Very good question. Let me sketch out the schedule and how the debates will be organized, and then I want to come back and make a comment about the role that this – that our commission plays.
We have – this first debate that you will see on October 3rd is 90 minutes, devoted first to domestic issues, issues that are of concern to the people of the United States dealing with the internal matters of the United States. The last debate, on October 22nd, will be a similar format, but it will focus on questions related to international relations and foreign policy. There’s been significant debate, as you have probably followed the last several days, with some disagreements between Governor Romney and President Obama about whether we have addressed the situation in your country effectively, and there’s a lot of back and forth on that right now and for good reason. But that – I expect that topic is probably going to get much more focused in the debate on October 22nd.
Now, in between those two debates, which will follow the format I described to you earlier, there will be a third presidential debate that is much different, because it will involve average citizens in the United States, people who are undecided in their votes, they have not decided whether they’re going to vote for Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, and they will be chosen from the area surrounding Hofstra University up in New York where this debate will happen, and they will actually ask the questions. There’s a great journalist, Candy Crowley from CNN, that will call on the journalists and can sort of follow up and get the candidates to amplify their questions a little bit. But it’s really an opportunity, and it turns out is one of the most popular of the debates that we have, when we have real citizens asking the questions, not journalists, not the moderators that we have picked to be the journalists.
And I think just to comment on that, having the independent journalists ask the questions is very, very important to the integrity of the format that we’ve developed. So the commission, the commission on which I serve, we pick the moderators from a pool of available and qualified journalists, but then the journalists have sole discretion over what questions to ask. We will have no idea in advance what Jim Lehrer’s questions are. We know what the topics are, but we won’t know what the questions are or how he intends to pose it, because they need to have the editorial independence and freedom to pose the questions to the candidates themselves without interference from outside factors. And I think that’s a very, very key thing to the debates.
Now, why just three presidential debates? Of course, there’s one vice presidential debate, so why only three? Well, three is a number that works because you want to have a focus on domestic policy, you want to have a focus on foreign policy, and you want an opportunity for regular citizens to ask the questions. And so that kind of works out to be a number that has in the history of our presidential campaigns worked.
It also is just logistically a number that works, because the candidates spend enormous amounts of time preparing for this. Now, for example, in the next two or three days we probably won’t see very much of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama out campaigning in front of the American people in different states because they’ll be preparing for these debates. They’re very, very important. But if you had too many debates, it would take away too many days from the general election campaign, when the campaigns need to be out visiting the states in which they are contesting for votes. So the number works out to be about right.
And it also – I think the fact that there is an independent commission that sponsors these debates, it sort of limits outside groups from saying well, we’re going to have a debate too. Now, we’ve had an interesting controversy, because Univision, the Spanish language network, felt that it was a missed opportunity on the part of our commission to not have a Hispanic journalist asking questions that would be of special interest within the Hispanic community, within their primary audience areas. So they said we should have another debate that would focus more on the issues of relevance to the Hispanic community. That didn’t happen and that wasn’t within our province, but they did have very good – I thought, very interesting programs separately with both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, in which a lot of issues like immigration, some of the issues important in Latin America, things that were of interest to their audience, those questions were posed.
So there’s kind of a balance that has to be reached between these formal established debates, and then the opportunities that the candidates have to face questions and address maybe other audiences that are out there.
The last point I would make is that our commission has now – because we have a history of having done these, going all the way back to 1988 – we are frequently called upon now by other entities to say, “How did you put together your commission? How did – technically, what has to go into sponsoring a debate? What are the requirements for television audiences and for the online audience that will be watching maybe on the internet? How do you accommodate all that?” So we’ve actually developed some expertise, which we share now.
We work with a partner at the National Democratic Institute, and then there’s another group called the International Republican Institute, that kind of are the foreign policy outreach wings of our two major parties. And in collaboration with them, we have actually travelled to some other countries – for example, Jamaica, when they had a presidential debate not long ago – and sort of consulted with them on “Here are some things that we’ve learned.” That said, I would want to be the very first to say that not every experience that we have within our system, in our political culture, is necessarily transferrable to another emerging democracy, because there are histories, there are different centers of power, there’s different structures in media ownership, because we don’t have state-controlled media. We start at a different place since all of our media organizations are independent.
So it – you have to think of what is going to be the opportunity that you can develop that accomplishes the one most important goal, which is to give citizens a genuine opportunity to see candidates asked – answer real questions and discuss with each other their differences on the important issues. I think that has to be the goal of any of these formats, regardless of whether – what the political culture of the country is.
QUESTION: My second thought –
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, go ahead. We’ll do one follow-up, and then we’ll try to work around the room.
QUESTION: My second thought was: How this debate would – going to affect all the results?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. Well, there’s a great deal of literature on how these debates impact the final result. Political scientists study this question, and there’s a lot of commentary on it. I think it is probably true that most Americans by now probably have an idea that they’re going to support this candidate or that candidate. So they’re not necessarily undecided as they watch the debate; they’re looking for the things that will probably confirm the choice that they’ve already made, or make them feel better about the candidate that they intend to vote for.
But every once in awhile, something will happen that will suddenly get someone to reconsider, or to say, “Well, I thought I was going to vote for President Obama, but now that I’ve seen Governor Romney, maybe I’m going to rethink things a bit.” There is a portion – some percentage of the American people – that watch those debates and have that reaction. Does it decide the outcome? Probably most experts would say, no, they don’t decide the outcome. But beginning with that debate on Wednesday night, these debates will really shape the environment and the tone for the rest of the debate going up to November 6th.
So what happens in the debate become important because it frames the agenda, it frames the topics that the candidates will then go on to address outside of the context of the debates, and I think it does, in that sense, have a real impact on the final outcome, because it gets the momentum going for one campaign, or it gets – something happens that really makes more clear the kind of choice that a candidate is making. And I think that’s what our format is designed to try to encourage.
Yes. Who’s got the microphone? There you go. Go ahead.
QUESTION: I’m Boris Iloyi Ibara from Brazzaville, Congo. I work for public TV. I’d like to know where does the Presidential Debate Commission find money for organize the debate, and how do you choose the moderator, and why it is in the university?
MR. MCCURRY: Good questions. We are – the commission itself is a nonprofit entity. So we have no source of financial support with the exception of some small grant funding that we get and some assistance that we get from companies that lend us services and help us stage these debates. For example, Anheuser-Busch, the beer company AB InBev, helps put on the catering and the process of feeding all the journalists who are there. I hope you have, with your credentials, you have access to there, so you can --
QUESTION: (Inaudible) yeah.
MR. MCCURRY: You can go have a beer and a sandwich before you watch the debate – (laughter) – courtesy of them. Southwest Airlines does a great job of providing us some facilities and actual air transport so that we can move a lot of the equipment and the logistical equipment from place to place.
But the major – the two biggest sources of funding for these debates are, first, the host university and community that puts on the debate. They have to raise a substantial amount of money to help pay for security, for facilities. You’ll see incredible work done at the University of Denver in getting the campus ready for this event and staging different things, lots of different tents and things outside. And that costs a lot of money, but the university makes the investment and raises that money from its supporters, because in the end, they’ll get a tremendous amount of publicity. I mean, people will be reading about the University of Denver over the course of the next week, and many of our sponsor universities consider that a great opportunity.
Plus, since the primary function of these debates is educational, for the educational benefit of the American people, it makes a lot of sense to do that at centers of learning and academic settings. It just has turned out that colleges and universities are the best place because there are a lot of students, a lot of schools and universities that participate, develop curriculum to help their students understand the importance of the debate, so it just seems like a natural setting to have these debates in a major college campus.
And then the other costs are borne by the major television networks in the United States. So there are five members of what we call the pool, the White House pool that cover most of our major political events like events at the White House, or the national political conventions. So it’s ABC News, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox Television together pool their resources to pay for the production of the debate itself. And that’s important because they own the contents. Sometimes people have said, well, why don’t you do this or do that, or do something different with the content? At the end of it, we have to say, “Because we don’t own that content.” At the end, it is the property of the network pool, because it has to be a bona fide news event.
One of the other reasons that this has been sort of tested out under our U.S. Election Law, one of the reasons why the debates can go forward as news events not subject to a lot of the laws that we have in our country that require equal time for every candidate is because these are considered genuine news events that are produced and developed and broadcast by news organizations.
So as you can see, it’s a very – it’s a complicated partnership, and we are more or less – we sort of convene all of those who kind of come together to put these debates on. That’s more or less the role of the commission itself.
Yes, how about in the back, back there? Yeah.
QUESTION: Okay, just a quick question. Okay – hey, sorry. My name is Girts Vikmanis. I’m from Latvia, the newspaper Latvijas Avize. I would like to ask who will be at the auditorium in the – on the TV show and how you choose people who will be there?
MR. MCCURRY: Very good question. In the course of – during the primary phase of our campaign, when the Republicans had a very active contest of who would be the nominee of the Republican Party, the audiences were very often very raucous, and clapped and cheered for their candidates because it was a very combustible atmosphere. We have, we hope, a different setting for these general election debates. In fact, the one thing that I get to do – you’ll see me before the debate begins – I get to go out and scold the audience and tell them to turn off their cell phones and be quiet during the debate because they’re – they shouldn’t – they’re not supposed to applaud or cheer or demonstrate support for one candidate or another. We want it to be the solemn, dignified occasion that it needs to be on behalf of all the millions of people who are watching.
But there is an audience inside the hall, and it’s divided up very simply. Half the tickets – actually, probably two-thirds of the tickets go to the two campaigns. And so they actually give the tickets to their supporters. You’ll see many members of our United States Congress, you’ll see governors, senators, and others who were there, to after the debate is over, come and walk among you journalists to explain who won the debate. We call that the Spin Room. In fact, there’s a place called Spin Alley. You’ll have to see that because it’s beyond belief. It’s like a big circus. But all of the people that are invited by the campaigns go and use their role as being surrogates for the candidate to talk about how effective Governor Romney was on this or how well President Obama answered that. So there will be a lot of that going on. That’s the biggest block of tickets.
And then the remaining third are really used by the university, since, as I indicated, they put so much energy, effort, and time and money into it. Of course, part of the reward for them is that they get to invite their bigwig donors and others to fill up some of the other seats. And then a little sprinkled in there are various members of the commission and some of the staff people who have worked on these debates now for the last four years. So it’s a pretty small audience. It feels not like a big political rally; it feels more like a controlled television show with kind of a studio audience baked in.
Now on the town hall presidential debate, it’s slightly different because there will be about 25 citizens sitting up with the two candidates on stage and a very small stage that will be outside the perimeter that you won’t actually see. You’ll only see the citizens who are sitting there with the President and Governor Romney. So it’s a big hassle because all my friends say, “Hey, you’re the big co-chair of the Commission on Debates. You must have some extra tickets. I want to go to Denver.” And I say, “Sorry, sorry, you have to go talk to either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama because they have most of the tickets.”
So I think it’s great that you all – I mean, it’s – we even are having trouble now getting additional reporters credentials, so I think it’s a great thing that our U.S. State Department made the arrangements for you to be there to watch some of this happen.
Yes. Okay, back there and then back here.
QUESTION: My name is Irene Zih Fon, a reporter with the Global Press Institute in Cameroon. Now my – I have a couple of questions. First, how are members of the independent commission chosen such that they don’t influence the turnout of the debates or the nature of how it’s being organized? Do they constitute members of the Republican or the Democrat?
And secondly, how do the monitors – the moderators, sorry – how do the moderators come up with the questions to be answered? Do the questions reflect those – the consent of the American people? How do they determine the questions that come up? Thank you.
MR. MCCURRY: Two great questions. The moderators are – first of all, we – the commission, the membership of the commission, is drawn up – it was initially drawn up of people who were invited to participate by the two founding members, Mr. Fahrenkopf and Mr. Kirk, the chairs of the two political parties. But they reached out to a wide variety of people within U.S. society and politics, and some were former senators and some were former governors and some were people who had run large media companies and some were Democrats and some were Republicans and some were Independent.
But what they really wanted most of all would be a group of people that had significant stature so that they could say this is a group that has thought through what is in the best interests of the American people. Some of the initial – the first members of the commission participated – there were two very important academic studies done, one at Harvard University and one at Georgetown University, that established the case that we really should have these debates. And some of the people who were on the commission initially participated in some of those studies.
But it is – the process is the commission votes to – on its own membership, so if there’s a vacancy, someone is proposed and nominated by a nominating committee of the commission. And we look – for example, the most recent member who was added to the commission is Father John Jenkins, who is the president of Notre Dame University – not a political partisan person. In fact, I don’t even know his political affiliation or if he has one. But he has significant stature and has thought a lot about civil discourse and how to improve the quality of debates in our country and was an ideal person to add to our commission. So we have about 11 members, and they really represent a lot of different constituencies within our country.
Now the moderators – we picked four very talented journalists. Two of them, Mr. Lehrer, who you’ll see in action on Wednesday night, and then Bob Schieffer, who will moderate the last debate, have a lot of experience. They’ve done several of these debates before. Candy Crowley from CNN, who will moderate the town hall format, is a very respected political journalist for CNN, and she has moderated debates at the senate and governor level. And then Martha Raddatz from ABC Television will moderate the vice presidential debate, and she has extensive experience covering foreign policy in the White House.
And it really is up to them to decide how to pick the right questions. And they try, I think, the best they can to think of what would – they all say, and more or less some version of their answer is this: I’m there as a surrogate for the American people, so my responsibility is to think of what are the questions most on the minds of the American people that I can pose to the candidates that will actually get them to answer the question and not try to dodge the question or talk about whatever else they want to talk about. So there is a lot that goes into that.
I would recommend, if you’re interested in this topic, Mr. Lehrer, who will moderate the debate Wednesday night, just wrote a very interesting booked called Tension City. In it, he describes his experiences as a moderator and actually answers directly the question you just posed. Here’s how he approaches putting the questions together. He tries them out on his wife, who is – gives him criticism of whether it’s a good question or a bad question. And it’s a process. All of the moderators have been very careful about not being influenced by the political campaigns. They hear from a lot of people, they get suggestions from a lot of people, but they are very – they play it very close to the vest on what they’re actually going to ask, because they really do want them to be independent, authentic, and generate the kind of answers that will make a difference.
Good question. Who’s got – yeah, right here, and then we’ll – yeah, then you’re next.
QUESTION: Hello, I’m Salome Ugulava from Georgia. I work in a weekly magazine, Tabula. We were talking about the influence these debates have on election results, outcomes. I wonder which debates were the most memorable and influential in the U.S. history. Thank you.
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, that’s a great question. You’re going to make me remember from my history the significant ones. A couple of examples, because some of them turn on particular moments that are illuminating because you see something about the character or the quality of the person running, and sometimes it’s just a general impression that you get over time.
Now, I had mentioned the 1976 debate, which was the first time – that was before the commission was formed. It was the first time there was a televised debate since the very first debate in 1960. And I think by all accounts, it was President Ford’s mistaken discussion of the geopolitics of Eastern Europe that really got people to call on the question whether he was the right person for the job. It had a significant impact and it boosted Governor Carter’s ability. He was coming as kind of an obscure governor from the other Georgia, the state of Georgia, and he – but he looked the part.
And this is – it’s very, very interesting. When you have a challenger challenging an incumbent president, such as we have this time, there is something almost inherently equalizing about having them there. Now, the President of the United States gets to travel around with lots of pomp and circumstance. You’ll see his huge motorcade go by when you’re in Denver, so there are a lot of trappings of office that go with that. But when they’re standing there side-by-side, they’re totally on an equal level, and I think there’s almost inherently an advantage that the challenger gets because they suddenly are on the same level with the President of the United States. And that has been significant. It’s, by the way, one of the reasons why for the longest time presidents didn’t necessarily want to debate. They’d say, “Why should I give equal time to this pesky challenger here?”
And that’s been overcome over time. I think one of the great things that the commission has done is now institutionalized the idea that you should come. This is the first time, to my memory, that an incumbent president, President Obama, has willingly agreed to the debates without a lot of back and forth and saying, well, I think maybe we should only have two debates. My boss, when I was working at the White House, President Clinton, decided he didn’t want to do three debates; he would only do two debates. So the power of the office sometimes gives you a little extra clout, but I think we’ve moved now to a more – to institutionalizing these.
I think in 1980, when Jimmy Carter was then the incumbent president, and a lot of people had some doubts about whether this guy Ronald Reagan from California was qualified to be president, they got onstage, and Ronald Reagan made a very good impression. He was a very warm, sunny presence and made a very good case about why we needed to change directions and throw an incumbent president out of office after only one term. So that was a – there were a couple of moments in that debate that crystallized that, but it was really more the impression that was left over the course of the entire debate.
I happened to work – one of the most famous moments in a debate was actually in the Vice Presidential debate in 1988 when the candidate was Dan Quayle, the Vice President, and he was being opposed by Senator Lloyd Bentsen, who was an older senior statesman in our United States Senate. And he had the famous moment where the young Mr. Quayle was comparing himself to the young John F. Kennedy, and he said, “Senator, I knew Jack Kennedy. I served with Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine, and you’re no Jack Kennedy.” (Laughter.) And it was an electric moment that everyone remembers.
But going back to the question, do these debates have an impact, it had absolutely no impact on the result at the end of the day. And I think that’s largely because, at the end, most voters vote – they know they’re voting for the president, not the person who’s second on the ticket. So I mean, that’s the – I guess the point I would make is that the debates are influential both because they give you these moments of clarity, where you really see something precisely that maybe you just had sort of imagined in the fog before. And then they also give you sometimes a very clear sense that one person is really just more qualified than another person or one person seems to understand my situation better.
I worked for John Kerry when he ran against President Bush in 2004, and even though most people would say Senator Kerry was substantively the winner of those debates, over time Mr. Bush just came across as a person who was more accessible, someone who was more naturally someone you can see understanding the concerns of my family or my community. And so I think sometimes it’s a tonal quality that sets in. It’s very, very hard to describe how the chemistry of the voter is impacted by these events, but I think a lot goes into it and a lot of it has impact.
Yeah, I think I --
MODERATOR: I was going to say, why don’t we take maybe two more questions then.
MR. MCCURRY: Two more.
MODERATOR: Because I know there are a lot of people who want to talk to you one-on-one, and so maybe a couple minutes for that afterward if you have time?
MR. MCCURRY: Okay, sure, sure.
MODERATOR: I’m not sure –
MR. MCCURRY: Yeah, I’ve got to be up on Capitol Hill by 4:00, but I’ve got time.
MODERATOR: Okay, great. We’ll take one more question then, and then do a couple one-on-ones.
MR. MCCURRY: Okay.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I’m Aram Araratyan from Armenian Mediamax News Agency. Mr. McCurry, as an ex press secretary of Mr. Clinton, please tell us more about him. What is your opinion about Mr. Clinton as a person and as a politician? And also, what’s your assessment of his role in Barack Obama’s campaign, because in my subjective opinion his recent speech impressed me even more than Obama’s speech.
MR. MCCURRY: Interesting. Well, he is, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating people on the planet. And I enjoyed – I will just describe to you every time you would have a conversation with him or he was meeting some guest who was at the White House, he would sit down and they would start a conversation, and somehow or other Bill Clinton always knew something about the subject of whoever was there visiting. I mean, he just had an incredible intellectual curiosity and ability to find out things and learn things, because he was like a sponge like that. He just enjoyed people and getting to know what were the issues that concerned them and what motivated them.
I think his skill at being a person who was just so accessible really made him the incredible politician it was. Now, it also famously got him into some trouble too, which we are well aware of. But I think in time, those issues that complicated his presidency and made my life miserable sometimes as press secretary – (laughter) – those have given way to, I think, a different portrait of him, because he has done two things really important. One, he’s never become too overly partisan and too strident. He doesn’t use the vocabulary and language that we hear so much in American politics right now that’s raw and abrasive. He has kind of a softer way of pointing out differences, as he did in that incredible speech that he gave.
And then the second thing is, if you’re – many of you are aware, and some of you are in countries where you’ve benefited directly from the work of his foundation. The William Jefferson Clinton Foundation has done remarkable work around the world dealing with diseases of poverty, with economic development assistance, with promoting the role of women in civil society. And so I think because he’s been doing so much of that, he’s gained in stature after leaving office, which is interesting.
But your question of what’s his role, I mean, his role was defined by that speech. He has got a unique ability with his way of putting certain issues to help people see complicated things in a new light. When he talked about – his speech was almost entirely about substantive policy issues, not about the ephemeral issues of personality that sometimes dominate our politics. And I think it was effective because he was talking about what people care about most, the substance of what it takes to get the economy going again and making the country better positioned to compete in a global economy. And I think that – he pointed the way to that. I won’t go as far as you did to say maybe his speech was a little bit better than the one – than given by President Obama, because that would get me in trouble with someone. (Laughter.)
But I think he did find a way, almost effortlessly, to refocus the way in which we were thinking about what the stakes are in this campaign. And I think the big – I mean, there’s – I think that’s part of why President Obama has shown some momentum in the last two weeks or so. Now, it’s a long way, though. Forty days is a long time in the course of a presidential campaign, so there is more to follow.
I think – who had the last question that we were – up here? Okay.
QUESTION: Sharaad Kuttan from BFM Radio in Malaysia. Billions are spent on partisan TV advertising to inform voters. Do you think these debates are an adequate corrective compensation to the saturation in the media by such partisan advertising?
MR. MCCURRY: That’s a tough question for me. Are they an adequate compensation for the billions, literally billions of dollars, that are going to be spent on television advertising? I would suggest they’re probably not sufficient to overcome some of the negativity that will be poured into the airwaves in the course of the rest of this campaign. I think that is a very troubling feature in our politics that the negative advertising, which does have impact and is memorable, does sometimes shape the contour of the debates in such a major way.
But that said, with four debates spaced over the course of October, from October 3rd to October 22nd, they will change the dialogue. They will change the political landscape and create new issues that maybe some of these negative ads will then seem off point to many Americans, because they say well, wait a minute, we just had a debate, and what you’re saying in these 30-second television ads doesn’t square with what I just heard the candidates themselves say in answer to exactly the questions that you’re trying to raise here. So hopefully, it does create new questions and new topics and new direction for the candidates to carry their campaigns.
I do think presidential campaigns are less impacted by these television ads than campaigns at other levels of our government – governor, senator, congressman – because people really do have a much more personal engagement with who the candidates for president are, and sometimes the negative ads, I think, are not as effective. I think a lot of – frankly, I think a lot of that money is wasted, and because there’s so much more that the American public will hear about the campaigns and the candidates from – directly from the reports that they see from working journalists that are carried on television and in our popular press. But it is something that troubles many people who have worked in politics for a long time, the divisive and nasty character of the debate, which has, in my experience, has gotten worse each of the four years that I’ve participated or not participated in the process. It is a subject of some concern to many of us, and hopefully we will do better.
Thank you very much. I look forward to having some of your questions --
MODERATOR: As you said – yeah, that’s great. Thank you. It was just a pleasure to hear from you. (Applause.) Thank you very much.
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