Friday, September 23, 2011

Technical Difficulties

It had been nearly 16 years since the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees had squared off in a televised debate.

But on this night in 1976, when President Ford and former Gov. Jimmy Carter came to Philadelphia, they weren't there to see the Liberty Bell. They were there to debate, and there was much anticipation in the air on that Thursday night.

In a couple of departures from how things had been done in 1960, the debates of 1976 were held in public places and in front of live audiences. The audience that assembled on this night in 1976 for the first of three debates between Ford and Carter expected to see a 90–minute encounter — but they saw more than that.

That first Ford–Carter debate was a lot more than most folks probably expected.

For one thing, it was longer than planned — by 27 minutes. That was how long the sound was out, and that is how long both candidates stood on that stage, virtually motionless, until the problem was resolved.

Because of Carter's huge lead in the polls, Ford had been willing, even eager, to do something that previous incumbents had been unwilling to do — debate his opponent. He believed — as Jules Witcover wrote in "Marathon" — that the American people didn't want someone who had been unknown to them a year and a half earlier to be in charge of foreign policy, and Ford's campaign emphasized questions and doubts about Carter's experience weeks before the two met for their first debate.

Carter later said he wouldn't have won the election if not for the debates. I didn't get that sense at the time, but I wasn't old enough to vote, and perhaps there were nuances that I missed.

But I did get the feeling that the technical difficulties that disrupted that first debate (which really wasn't too memorable, otherwise) gave Carter an opportunity to mentally assess his performance to that point and, like a coach at halftime, make adjustments.

When the debate began, Ford, who trailed by a significant margin in the national polls, came out swinging. Carter, on the other hand, often seemed timid — as if he was intimidated by the aura of the presidency. Perhaps he was.

But, after the unscheduled interruption, Carter appeared more forceful in his criticism of Ford — and he maintained his offensive for the rest of the campaign.

At the time, most surveys indicated the debate had been a draw, although some concluded that Ford had been the winner. But the momentum was with Carter after those technical difficulties 35 years ago.


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