What Ronald Reagan Knew; Tall, Calm, Gracious, Determined-The Republican Challenger Destroyed Jimmy Carter in a Televised Debate. Brown, Cameron and Clegg Should Watch and Learn

By Sandbrook, Dominic | New Statesman (1996), April 19, 2010 | Go to article overview

What Ronald Reagan Knew; Tall, Calm, Gracious, Determined-The Republican Challenger Destroyed Jimmy Carter in a Televised Debate. Brown, Cameron and Clegg Should Watch and Learn


Sandbrook, Dominic, New Statesman (1996)


True to his image as the wisecracking gun-slinger, Ronald Reagan was wearing a plaid shirt and cowboy boots when he walked on to the stage to debate President Jimmy Carter. It was October 1980. With the polls deadlocked and just a week to go before the American people voted, the rhetorical confrontation between the two leading candidates for the presidency was important. Confident as ever, Reagan sauntered out beneath the spotlights with a cheerful grin. And then Carter went for him. He read out old Reagan quotations in a mocking tone; he reacted to Reagan's answers by shaking his head and saying, scornfully, "That's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard"; he pointed accusingly after one reply and said: "This just demonstrates his shallowness."

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Meanwhile, the so-called Great Communicator seemed all over the place. His performance was "miserable", his opponent later recalled. "I was shocked. He couldn't fill up the time. His answers weren't long enough. And what time he could fill, he filled with woolly platitudes."

It was lucky for Reagan that nobody saw his lamentable performance, but then they were never going to. It was a rehearsal, not the real thing: the stage had been set up under spotlights in a garage in Virginia, and his "opponent" was the Republican congressman David Stockman, who had prepared using a stolen copy of the Democrats' briefing book. He played Jimmy Carter better than the president did himself. Afterwards, Stockman drove home in a mood of silent despair, convinced that Reagan, with no time for another rehearsal, was about to throw away the election on television.

Now that Britain's political leaders have decided to follow their US counterparts by agreeing to take part in a series of three televised debates to be held on 15,22 and 29 April, it is a safe bet that Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg will have seen more than a few clips of Reagan's performance a few days later. Like him, they will have spent hours learning their lines, working on their put-downs, honing their impersonations of seriousness, sincerity and compassion. Like him, they will have made more than a few howlers in rehearsal; apparently, Brown has been practising against Alastair Campbell, while in Cameron's rehearsals, Michael Gove plays Brown and Jeremy Hunt plays Clegg. Above all, though, they should have learned the single biggest lesson from the history of televised debates: what matters is not substance, but style.

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Dangerous territory

From the moment Reagan and Carter walked out beneath the lights in Cleveland, Ohio, it was clear that the difference between them was as much physical as ideological. Drained after four years in the Oval Office, Carter looked stiff and nervous, his eyes puffy, his face taut with tension. Reagan looked younger than his 69 years (a reminder that every candidate needs a good make-up artist): tall, calm, determined. Before they started, he strode across to Carter and held out his hand--a gesture that took the president by surprise, and brought home the difference in stature and confidence between the two.

Like most such encounters, Reagan-Carter was less a genuine debate than a chance for the candidates to speak their prepared lines and to remind the viewers of their most popular positions. As Brown's, Cameron's and Clegg's handlers should have told them, the trick is to work with viewers' preconceptions, deftly neutralising sensitive issues and steering the conversation on to familiar territory.

In 1980, Reagan's very first answer--"I'm only here to tell you that I believe with all my heart that our first priority must be world peace"--was designed to puncture Democratic claims that he was a warmonger. He used the word "peace" more than almost any other, and when Carter accused him of reckless belligerence, he had the perfect reply. "I have seen four wars in my lifetime. …

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