BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Although the presidential campaign has been dominated thus far by candidates sniping at each other from remote locations, they won't have that luxury in the upcoming debates. The Atlantic Monthly's James Fallows observes in a recent article that these key elections events are shaping up to be a kind of clash of the debate titans, despite or perhaps because of the candidates' profoundly different styles. Rarely in the past have George W. Bush or John Kerry tasted defeat, but Fallows suggests that when the sparks fly this time around, one of the candidates is sure to get burned. James, welcome to the show.
JAMES FALLOWS: Thank you very much, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So first of all, what matters most in these debates? Do viewers tune in for policy debates or for contrasting personalities?
JAMES FALLOWS: To the disappointment of debate coaches everywhere, it's not really the contest of logic, and indeed, if you were scoring debates that way, you would have assumed that Richard Nixon had beaten John Kennedy in 1960 and that Jimmy Carter had beaten Ronald Reagan in 1980, and of course the debates in both those years were very important in the opposite direction. So, debates really have mattered in the course of presidential contests, and it's been mainly because one of the candidates manages to project something about his approach to life, his personality that voters who are undecided connect with, or he forces his opponent to reveal something that drives voters away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is the fact that debates are so important the reason why there wasn't a debate after the famous 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates for another, I don't know, 15, 16 years?
JAMES FALLOWS: Well, there is no kind of official system for forcing candidates to have debates. Every year including this one, it's a matter of negotiation, and there is this Commission on Presidential Debates. It tried to psych out both campaigns early this year by saying there's going to be three presidential debates, and they're going to be on these dates and these places, and one vice presidential debate, and it shrewdly put all of them in swing states, thinking that would make both campaigns, you know, reluctant to say no.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Doesn't the incumbent get to pick what the format is, whether it's one moderator or a panel of moderators or, or even face to face talk?
JAMES FALLOWS: In reality, yes. Again, procedurally, it's a negotiation, and each side has its objections. The Debate Commission this year proposed that all the debates be single moderator, and that actually was a good thing from almost everybody's point of view, because we journalists can't resist hogging the air time, and if a single moderator is able to sort of back himself or herself away from the foreground, he can occasionally let the candidates go directly at each other.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last time around, PBS host Jim Lehrer was criticized in the press, he was the moderator, because he sat so far back he never asked any followups, and Kerry himself told the New York Times four years ago, you could have picked ten people off the street who didn't know Jerusalem from Georgia, and they would have picked better questions than Jim Lehrer. What do you think the role of the moderator should be?
JAMES FALLOWS: I think it's an almost impossible position that the Debate Commission is in, because think of the world from their point of view. They have to find something that Karl Rove plus George Bush and John Kerry and his whole campaign team are both going to agree on. And so-- it is almost inevitable that it sort of reverts to a kind of tameness in, in the questioning, and what one can hope, again, is that the moderator, Lehrer and the others who have been picked for these single roles will try to make the most of this historic opportunity that, that they have.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, for your article, you watched the candidates' old debates a lot of times over and over again. What did the old debate tapes reveal, first about Bush?
JAMES FALLOWS: The most amazing thing is that Bush ten years ago, for whatever reason, simply sounded like a different person from the President Bush we know today. He spoke quite quickly. He never mangled a sentence. The sentences all had sort of appropriate grammatical form. He, he one or two, you know, mispronunciations, probably fewer than I'm having right now. He didn't stammer and pause before grunting out a big word as he often does now. Essentially he sounded more like his brother, Jeb Bush, who's a perfectly articulate speaker, than he does like the man who's been our president. And the most riveting sixty minutes of debate film I saw when preparing for this Atlantic article was the debate between Bush and Governor Ann Richards of Texas in 1994.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The brilliant, silver-haired, sabre-tongued orator from Texas.
JAMES FALLOWS: Indeed. She was the reigning queen of Democratic oratory at the time, and if you were judging this debate either on points or emotionally, the way audiences do in presidential debates, you'd say well - that Bush won by a mile, as in fact he went on to win the gubernatorial election.
ANN RICHARDS: I want us to stop and remember that there are a lot of people in Texas and Southeast Texas that are out of their homes tonight, and I want you to remember when you go home to say a prayer for them.
MODERATOR: Mr. Bush.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, spoken, Governor. I think that the biggest thing Texas must do is to end the post-Vietnam War syndrome which blames others for society's ills. All policy in Texas must say to each and every individual, you're accountable for your behavior.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what stood out for you about John Kerry's past debates?
JAMES FALLOWS: The big surprise with listening to tapes of John Kerry over the years is he always sounds the same. Kerry himself was on Meet the Press earlier this year, and there were some clips of him having been on the same Meet the Press show in his mid-20s in 1971, and if you closed your eyes, you couldn't really be sure whether it was the 25 year old Kerry or the 60 year old Kerry who was talking.
JOHN KERRY: The men who ordered us, the men who, who signed off the-- the air raid strike areas - I think these men, by the letter of the law, the same letter of the law that tried Lieutenant Calley, are war criminals.
JOHN KERRY: The words were honest, but on the other hand, they were a little bit over the top, and I think that there were breaches of, of the Geneva Conventions.
JAMES FALLOWS: But also, when it comes to his debates, he had a sort of martial artist dexterity and agility, and this was highlighted most in his debate with William Weld in Massachusetts. He and Weld were very similar in many ways, but Kerry was able, basically, to out-dance and out-parry and out-maneuver Weld, and that was part of his coming back to win his race for re-election to the Senate eight years ago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like Muhammad Ali against Sonny Liston. [LAUGHTER]
JAMES FALLOWS: Well, the Liston and Clay image would be actually more appropriate to the Kerry-Bush showdown this fall, because if you were to sort of reduce these two people to sporting metaphors, which of course we would never want to do in politics--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Never.
JAMES FALLOWS: -- you would say that Bush's great strength is a kind of relentless heavyweight slugging --again, like Sonny Liston, or other great strong punchers of the ring, whereas Kerry, at his very best, is like Cassius Clay or Muhammad Ali -- dancing around - whatever you're doing - he's sort of doing it faster. Whether that will happen this fall, with Bush and Kerry, we just don't know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, because you don't get to do it with your fist. All the polls suggest that the public will forgive George Bush practically any superficial gaffe, so I wonder whether a zinger, even if it squarely hits its target, will really make much of a difference.
JAMES FALLOWS: If the zinger from Kerry is: Ah ha! You've got the wrong name for the president of Uzbekistan, no one will care. But think of Dan Quayle against Lloyd Bentsen for the vice presidency in 1988, where Quayle was trying to boost himself up by saying that John Kennedy had always been a, a young man of high office, and Bentsen came back with I think the largely unscripted business of, you know, I knew Jack Kennedy, and you're no Jack Kennedy. One reason we watch these things is that something we can't anticipate now is going to happen, and that surprising thing will have a big effect on the election.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk a little bit about how the war rooms are setting up these debates. Both of them seem to be engaged in raising expectations for the opponent. I think the Bush war room recently announced that John Kerry is so good, he's like Cicero. [LAUGHTER]
JAMES FALLOWS: It is like the point spread in sports, and the Bush team has been absolutely brilliant in playing this expectations game, where every single time so far they've, they've said their upcoming opponent is so fearsome, that if their candidate can physically survive the encounter, that he will, in effect, have won. The realistic fact is that both of these people have won all the debates they've had before -- Bush and Kerry -- and so neither of them should be gaming the expectations against the other, and it'll be a real championship match.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Thank you very much.
JAMES FALLOWS: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Fallows is the national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly.