Bill Moyers and his guests discuss the presidential debates, presidential ads and the Reagan Democrats in the Heartland who are talking about voting Democratic in 1992.
MODERATOR: Good evening. The television and radio stations of the United States and their affiliated stations are proud to provide facilities for a discussion of issues in the current political campaign-
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN:  I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.
SENATOR LLOYD BENTSEN (D-TX): [Omaha, Nebraska, October, 1988] I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.
BERNARD SHAW, CNN:  If Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?
MICHAEL DUKAKIS: No, I don’t, Bernard. And I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life.
BILL MOYERS: If you could have a true debate between Bush and Clinton – no press, none of us there, just a moderator keeping time – they might learn from each other.
PEGGY NOONAN, Former Reagan/Bush Speech Writer: Yeah. Oh, they might really look into each other’s souls and just think, “Ick,” you know?
BILL MOYERS: Join us for more of Peggy Noonan and campaign ’92 on Listening to America.
I’m Bill Moyers. Welcome to Listening to America. You remember “1,000 points of light,” “Read my lips,” “a kinder, gentler nation.” Well, the woman who wrote those words, Peggy Noonan, will be here later for a rare television interview. We’ll also hear from Doug Bailey, whose political Hotline sizzles with inside tips. And we’ll have a report from the heartland, where working class voters who’ve been called “Reagan Democrats” are talking of going home.
First, though, we begin with Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Dean of the Annenberg School for Communication, media scholar, putative prophet and our weekly guide into the meaning of it all.
Kathleen, there would have been a debate this week if George Bush had not insisted on the debate formula that was used-format that was used in 1988. He doesn’t want to change it. What’s the meaning of his stubborn clinging to that old format?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON, Dean, Annenberg School for Communication: First, it’s important to remember that the stakes are high in debates. This is the largest national audience that will see the two candidates and be able to directly compare them, so this is a serious discussion for George Bush. In 1988 the format consisted of a panel of reporters, with candidates being given two-minute and one-minute response times and no follow-up for the reporters. What that meant was that the candidates could lie in their answers – Dukakis said he didn’t raid his pension fund, for example, when he did – and there was no chance for a reporter to say, “Excuse me, but that doesn’t comport with the facts.” It means, as well, that reporters who ask a different kind of question than the electorate needs could not raise – did not raise the larger questions.
BILL MOYERS: The kind of insider’s question.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And the insider’s questions are often phrased in language that just doesn’t make sense to people who aren’t carefully following the campaign, and most of us aren’t before the debates.
BILL MOYERS: We have an excerpt from one of those 1988 debates. Let’s take a look at it. It illustrates what you’re talking about.
REPORTER: Mr. Vice President, the Governor has suggested that you’ve never met a weapons system that you didn’t like or want. Are you prepared to tell the voters one system in this time of tight budgetary restraints and problems at the Pentagon that you’d be willing to cut or even eliminate that wouldn’t endanger national security?
VICE PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I don’t think it’s a question of eliminating. I can tell him some I’m against – A-6F, for example, DIVOD, and I can go on and on, Minuteman, 3 penetration systems. I mean, there’s plenty of them that I oppose.
BILL MOYERS: No one on that panel followed up with the fact that those three weapons systems that George Bush said he would eliminate had already been eliminated.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: And it wasn’t until the next debate that the panelists had a chance to ask that question. But the more important question is, why weren’t they asking the large, substantial question: “How do you differ from Michael Dukakis on defense and what do those differences say about the ability of both of you to balance the budget?” The fact in 1988 that didn’t come out in the debate was Dukakis favored a conventional build-up; Bush favored a nuclear build-up. The DIVOD doesn’t tell that to the American people.
BILL MOYERS: Well, why do you think George Bush considers it to his ad-vantage to stick with the old format where the reporters ask the questions instead of a single moderator letting the candidates ask questions of each other?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Both candidates see an advantage in their position. Clinton, who’s faster on his feet and has the advantage of having debated in a moderator format through the primaries, sees an advantage in long exchanges with George Bush. He can get more deeply into the economy that way and he believes that the press panel is more likely to ask him questions about the draft than is George Bush. So there’s an advantage to Clinton in the Presidential Debates Commission format. There’s an advantage to Bush in the ’88 format. He’s ac-customed to a press panel format. That’s a press conference and he’s held more than any president in recent memory. He also has less total accountability on the economy if there’s no follow-up from reporters, as there wasn’t in ’88.
BILL MOYERS: Stiffing the commission on presidential debates is, in other words, a form of controlling the agenda?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The Presidential Debates Commission was an attempt to ensure we didn’t have a Lyndon Johnson-like scenario, a Richard Nixon-like scenario from 1968, with the public, as a result, deprived of debates. The whole notion was this commission, which has the former chair of the Republican National Committee, former chair of the Democratic National Committee on it would be able to bind the candidates to an agreement about when to debate, how to debate and then the format for debates. And the advantages were, first, we’d have debates and secondly, the debates would occur predictably so we wouldn’t dominate the news agenda with the silliness that has dominated for the last two weeks. ”Why isn’t George Bush debating?” “What are the advantages to each side?” “Can we pressure him into debating?”
The problem, of course, is the parties can’t deliver their candidates, something the academics never anticipated when we recommended that the parties set up a commission.
BILL MOYERS: Something else I noticed this week, and we put together a little package to raise a question. Here it is.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: They’re going to steal our words and slogans, words like “community,” “family,” “values.”
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: It’s the symbol of these United States of America and to the liberty for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all! Thank you and God bless!
BARBRA STREISAND: [singing] God bless America / Land that I love / Stand beside her and guide her / Through the night with a light from above / Oh, God bless America, my home sweet home.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Bill Clinton isn’t only trying to take back the symbols, using the Hollywood elites, but he’s also trying to take back the symbols that were used by Reagan to telegraph to the Reagan Democrats that he was not the candidate, Reagan was not the candidate of the rich, but the candidate of the rest – families, small-town America. Now what Clinton’s doing in his biographical film, which is airing as an ad, is showing you in front – is showing himself in front of his grandfather’s small store, showing himself growing up, a young man healthy in a rural environment, showing him shaking hands with another powerful symbol, John Kennedy, in a moment that almost looks like God investing Adam with creation on the Sistine Chapel. So what we see here is the Democrats trying to reclaim the nationalistic symbols, but at the same time trying to reclaim the symbols that originally created the Democratic Party as we know it, the symbols of the New Deal.
BILL MOYERS: So many of these symbols are aimed at the heartland, what pundits like to call “the real America.” But what we’ve found this year is that the economic realities are cutting far more deeply out in the heartland than sentimental symbols. That’s why George Bush and Bill Clinton have been going to places like Macomb County in Michigan, sort of a bellwether county of the heartland.
Bill Clinton was there this weekend, speaking on the economy. We got there last week ahead of him to get a sense of what’s on people’s minds. Here’s our report.
Macomb County, Michigan – in the heart of the American auto industry, it’s gained a national reputation among pollsters and reporters as the home of the Reagan Democrats. The voters here are considered crucial this year to the hopes of both George Bush and Bill Clinton. These modest, well-kept neighborhoods were built back when economic growth was taken for granted, an era when Macomb County voted overwhelmingly Democratic.
President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
BILL MOYERS: In 1960, Macomb County voted for John Kennedy 63 to 37 percent.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: It’s great to be here at Macomb Community College.
BILL MOYERS: But by 1984, Ronald Reagan trounced Walter Mondale here 67 to 33 percent.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: The last thing we need now is a return to the policies of tax and tax and spend and spend.
BILL MOYERS: In recent years, as jobs in the auto industry disappear, many Macomb residents are struggling to maintain a middle class lifestyle. The unemployment rate is about 10 percent.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: And I intend to see that we continue to lead the world-
BILL MOYERS: George Bush won Macomb four years ago, getting 61 percent of the vote. But in 1992 these voters are up for grabs.
ECONOMICS TEACHER: The average income in Macomb County dropped 11 percent in the last decade.
BILL MOYERS: At the local community college Kathy Hamill [sp?] is taking a weekend economics class.
ECONOMICS TEACHER: We’re faced with a real problem in Macomb County.
KATHY HAMILL: My husband’s out of a job. He’s been locked out since last December. And I’m pregnant with another child coming. We’re supposed to support the world. You know, bring on these kids and help out the economy by bringing these children to our future. And what’s taken away from you? Your job. Can’t get unemployment and that. You have unions. You hope the unions will support you, but they don’t. You’re out there trying to get support from them and all they’re doing is – it’s been since December. No unemployment.
BILL MOYERS: Kathy works full-time at an engineering company that’s been hard-hit by the recession. Her husband Dan only recently found night work as a janitor.
DAN HAMILL: I think you can take that “family value” thing and throw it right away because when people aren’t eating, people don’t have jobs, “family values” don’t mean anything. You know, I mean, the number one thing is putting food on the table and keeping a roof over your head and a job. If you don’t have that, you can’t take care of your family, either. I guess it’s just a phrase to appease the rich people and that, because they can afford to have family values.
KATHY HAMILL: [at an amusement park] This is a treat for us today. It’s not an everyday thing that we would do. He loves coming here, so I don’t know what we’re going to do in the winter. We’ll just make snowmen, nice and cheap.
DAN HAMILL: We haven’t been able to get any unemployment. Up until recently we were barely making ends meet and then I managed to get a part-time job working nights, so it’s helped a little. But we’re still – it’s a very, very hard time for us.
In ’84 I was between Mondale and Reagan and I didn’t like Mondale, but I figured Reagan had done a half-way decent job, so I voted for Reagan. Everybody’s pretending to be a Democrat, but half of all the union membership voted for Reagan, voted Republican. That was the best-kept secret. Now they’ll come out and they’ll tell you, you know, “I voted for him, but I regret it.” But they did. They did vote for him, yeah.
KATHY HAMILL: I think I went with Reagan because I didn’t want – I definitely never wanted Mondale or Carter, so I went with who I didn’t – I just – I’m sort of – I’ve never really felt strong about any of them, actually. So it’s like you sort of get these options of, well, ”Which one don’t you for sure want?” and then you take the other and hope they make some change.
DAN HAMILL: So this year I decided that – I looked at all the candidates out there and first I was leaning toward Jerry Brown. And then Ross Perot came in and I really liked Ross Perot. I thought that he was the honest – most honest out of everyone. And I supported him up until – and it was really hard on me when he quit. I really – I had faith in him and I really thought he would come through. So then I just had to turn to Bill Clinton and I figured if anybody can save us, it’ll be him, because George Bush has done nothing and he’s showed me nothing.
KATHY HAMILL: I guess that’s why I’m getting stuck with Clinton and I’m not even enthused about him, but I don’t feel we’re getting anywhere with Bush. But maybe because he’s a Democrat, maybe he will, for a little hit, help the little people, just for the fact that a Democrat is supposed to be more for the little person. So maybe we’ll get a little something out of him, at least more than what we’ve gotten out of the one that’s for the richer ones!
1st VOTER: Yeah, I don’t want to know who dodged the draft 20 years ago or who was a war hero 40 years ago. I want to know who’s dodging the debates next month.
BILL MOYERS: On a recent Friday night a group of Macomb County voters gathered at Fiore’s Bar to talk politics. They expressed their frustration with the superficiality of the campaign.
2nd VOTER: I feel certain that right now, the way I feel about Bill Clinton is that if he looked like Paul Tsongas, he would never be in the position he’s in. And if Paul Tsongas looked like Bill Clinton, he would probably win by a landslide.
3rd VOTER: But when all three stations, 100,000 come on – people are sitting there in Hamtramck, one idiot throws broccoli at the President and here comes the news, “President gets pelted with broccoli.”
4th VOTER: Worldwide. Worldwide.
3rd VOTER: One guy – worldwide. One guy did it and here we’ve got this as the main story, not what he was saying, but he gets pelted with broccoli. It’s insane. They’re looking for garbage.
5th VOTER: It’s insulting to the intelligence of the American people-
3rd VOTER: Yes, exactly.
5th VOTER: -is what it is.
6th VOTER: But right now, I think the main thing on people’s minds is the economy and jobs. And that’s where I beg to differ with Bush. He keeps promising jobs, jobs, jobs and right now the person, the auto worker, the McDonald’s worker, the Wendy’s worker, the blue collar worker, they want – they want jobs. If you have a job, you have respect. I mean, you know, I, for one, if I’m ever fired or whatever, I don’t want welfare. But even if you give me a job sweeping the street, making two bucks an hour, I have my dignity. At least I’m bringing money-
4th VOTER: Exactly.
6th VOTER: I’m bringing money home.
7th VOTER: You know, Bush said in his speech yesterday at the Economics Club, because I listened to it, Ed, that he knew in his heart that if this free trade agreement with Mexico went through, that the companies would not send all the jobs to Mexico. So obviously he thinks free trade’s going to bring a lot of jobs to us.
4th VOTER: Right.
7th VOTER: I don’t know. I just can’t trust the man. He knows in his heart? I need something more substantial and I think Bush has not, in four years, given us something more substantial.
5th VOTER: I feel like the American people are being raped.
3rd VOTER: Then what did Bill Clinton say? He says, “I’m going to tax the rich.” Who is the rich? General Motors.
5th VOTER: Right!
3rd VOTER: It’s General Motors. So what is General Motors going to do? They’re going to move to Mexico where they don’t have to pay the taxes. [crosstalk]
8th VOTER: I think what we’ve got to do is create a tax disadvantage for moving these jobs out of the country because it’s really a slap at the collective bargaining process that we spent years building up our wages and our working conditions only to see, 15 years down the road, that, you know, we finally got our wages to where we can almost make a comfortable living, and our jobs are moved to a Third World country.
4th VOTER: That’s what they’re picking away at.
9th VOTER: The point is, it’s starting to affect white collar workers.
4th VOTER: Right. Right. Yeah.
2nd VOTER: I didn’t say that I’m committed to voting for Bush, but why I would even consider voting for Bush, because you can’t turn back the tide to this global economy that we’re entering into. The people making these-
5th VOTER: No, but you can modify it.
2nd VOTER: OK. But what I was going to ask you is, the people you were saying, “They’re doing this,” “They’re doing that,” “They’re giving our jobs here and they’re out” – you know, the point being, who is “they?” Are they Republicans?
5th VOTER: General Motors.
2nd VOTER: But the thing is, is they’re multi-national corporations-
5th VOTER: Ford. Yeah, right.
2nd VOTER: – that have no allegiance to what we consider to be, like, a really important issue of being-
5th VOTER: No, but if there were some tax incentives for them
2nd VOTER: – American or not-
5th VOTER: – for them to stay in this country, like there aren’t right now, then maybe so many jobs wouldn’t be leaving. There are no tax – they just let them go.
3rd VOTER: I supported Reagan, Reagan and Bush. And I did that because of what Carter did to the economy and I don’t want it happening again. Clinton – I just don’t trust him because he just keeps coming out and saying – whatever group he’s with, that’s what he’s going to say he’s in favor of.
6th VOTER: But do you trust Mr. Bush, then?
3rd VOTER: I would rather
6th VOTER: Do you trust someone that – “Read my lips, no new taxes.” Two years later, he pulls new taxes.
3rd VOTER: He admitted it was a mistake doing that.
6th VOTER: Well, I’m sorry, but now he’s admitted again that he’s not going to pull the taxes on, so who do we believe? Who do we – do we believe Mr. Clinton or do we believe Mr. Bush?
1st VOTER: That’s why we’re hungry for a leader, I think.
9th VOTER: That’s the big shame is you have Bush the other day talking about making life better for our children. Go out and make life better for us and I’ll make life better for my children, you know? I’m sick of hearing that. I mean, that’s over and over again. Give me something to work with. I can deal with my family.
KATHY HAMILL: My father had to work till he was 70. He couldn’t retire and he died. My mom is still 60 and she’s working and who knows when she can retire. She has to try to come up with 401K for herself in order to retire. It’s like you work to live to die, basically, is the way it is right now. And you would hope there’d be some kind of change and hope for your children later on. It’s, like, pray for somebody good to come into our lives. At least, you know, if we could just find that right person – I don’t know if there is a right person for a president, but it sure would be nice if we could get even a third of a person right for president.
BILL MOYERS: We’re joined now by Doug Bailey. Doug Bailey once upon a time was a top Republican strategist. Now he’s the publisher of the Political Hotline, a daily briefing on politics for the press, the campaign, the political consultants and political junkies like me.
Doug, the papers this morning are full of reports that – from unnamed Republican sources -saying that if George Bush is going to get back people like those we just saw, ”We’re going to have to start ripping the skin off Clinton.” One quote says, “Voters like that have an emotional callous against Bush that only massive negative advertising might break through.” Is that what we are in for?
DOUG BAILEY, Publisher, “The Hotline”: Well, I’m afraid that’s what we’re in for. I don’t – I don’t subscribe to that theory as to how George Bush wins this election. I think that’s a sure-fire loss, if he goes negative. I suspect that that’s what they’ll do. I believe that, as difficult as it may be to win back the Reagan Democrats – who came to Reagan on economic issues, stayed with Reagan and Bush in ’88 on economic issues, not on family issues – as difficult as it may be to win those people back, the President’s only course, only winning course in this campaign, is to lay out a vision of the future, and he started to do that with the Detroit speech, and to stick with that over two or three weeks so that people can believe that he really believes it. If he discards it, there’s no hope.
But, you know, Bill, there is a litmus test in this election unlike those that we’ve known in recent years. In recent years, because there was an international world of troubles and peril, if you didn’t have the qualifications to serve as leader of the world, you probably weren’t in the ball game and people wrote off a number of Democratic candidates, and Dukakis was a good example on that score. Never got into the game. This time, does the president have a vision to lead America? Do the candidates have a vision to lead America? At the moment, Bill Clinton gets pretty good marks on that and the President gets very low marks and that may be the litmus test. If he doesn’t get into the ball game on that score, all the negative advertising in the world won’t do much.
BILL MOYERS: Both candidates in the last few days have come out with positive ads, although Clinton’s is a little negative, about the future and the economy in particular. Here’s the recent ad by President Bush.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: [campaign commercial] The world is in transition. The defining challenge of the ’90s is to win the economic competition, to win the peace! We must be a military superpower, an economic superpower and an export superpower. In this election you’ll hear two versions of how to do this. Theirs is to look inward. Ours is to look forward, prepare our people to compete, to save and invest so we can win! Here’s what I’m fighting for: open markets for American products, lower government spending, tax relief, opportunities for small business, legal and health reform, job training and new schools built on competition, ready for the 21st century. [Paid for by Bush-Quayle ’92 General Committee, Inc.]
BILL MOYERS: Effective ad?
DOUG BAILEY: Well, it’s clearly the best ad that they’ve done, primary or general season, I think very presidential, very strong and puts an agenda forward. I’m really smiling because I’m anticipating the Clinton ad, too, but television, Bill, as you know, is a visual medium and what the pictures say is a president of the future – those computer signs, the jets taking off, all the pictures of tomorrow. They play to Bush’s weakness – that is, people don’t think of him as a president of the future. They think of him as a president of the past. So his visuals are not the traditional flag and small town visuals of America. The visuals in that ad are of Bush, the man of tomorrow, the leader of tomorrow.
BILL MOYERS: That’s a change. That’s a change from ’88, isn’t it, this kind of ad?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Yeah, it is. The form of this ad is trying to identify with the younger generation. The edits to the visuals there are between two thirds of a second and two seconds. This is actually MTV visuals. You’re trying to appeal to an audience, for Republicans, which this year looks like an older audience. Young people are moving toward Democrats. But what interests me about this ad is its non-responsiveness to the concerns of the people who were talking in your Macomb County documentary. What I heard in your Macomb County documentary were people who have voted “no” all of their adult lives. They voted against Carter. They voted against Mondale. They voted against Dukakis. They want this year to vote ”yes” and they’ve gotten a campaign so far that hasn’t given them the ability to do it. This ad just telegraphs conclusions. It says, “Here’s what I want to do for you.” Those people were asking very sophisticated questions, such as “Will the North American Free Trade Agreement cost us jobs or give us jobs?” Bush says he wants to be an export superpower. They’re saying, “How are you going to do it? How will it affect me?” The politicians are behind the public dialogue this year.
DOUG BAILEY: One ad doesn’t win a campaign. I do think, however, that the basic, fundamental Bush need is to layout an agenda and say, “Here’s what I’m going to do in a second term. Here’s the America I see and here’s how to get from here to there.” This is a pretty good effort at doing – at doing that.
BILL MOYERS: It’s hard to remember even the message from it just a minute ago.
DOUG BAILEY: I understand. And to me, the – there was a wondrous word or set of words that was used in the Detroit speech which wasn’t in the ad, and that is “American renewal.” “American renewal” is a sort of pledge to keep our old values, but add new jobs. That’s a good wording. Why they didn’t keep it in the ad is beyond me.
BILL MOYERS: Let’s take a look at the Clinton ad, which was released just this weekend, and then come back and de-code it.
ANNOUNCER: Nineteen eighty-eight-
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: [August 15, 1988] Thirty million jobs in the next eight years!
ANNOUNCER: Nineteen ninety- America’s jobless rate hits a three-year high. [Bureau of Labor Statistics]
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: [November 5, 1991] I’m not prepared to say we’re in recession.
ANNOUNCER: March, 1992 – jobless rate hits six-year high. [Bureau of Labor Statistics]
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: The economy is strengthening. [October 4, 1991]
ANNOUNCER: George Bush vetoes unemployment compensation.
[Bureau of Labor Statistics]
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: The economy continues to grow. [July 3, 1992]
ANNOUNCER: July, 1992 – unemployment is the highest in eight years. [Bureau of Labor Statistics] If George Bush doesn’t understand the problem, how can he solve it? We can’t afford four more years. [Paid for by Clinton /Gore ’92 Committee]
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: What Clinton is attempting to do is answer the question of the young person who asked in the Macomb County documentary, “Can we believe him? He said, ‘Read my lips’ and then he turned on his promise.” What interests me about this ad is the press reaction to it. Instead of asking whether or not there is an economic agenda here which provides an alternative to George Bush, the press condemned this ad as being a negative ad. This, in my judgment, is a fair, legitimate oppositional ad. It’s taking actual news clips. Bush did say those things. It’s then laying out real economic statistics. It’s pointing out the contrast, promise versus performance, and I think is asking a legitimate, important question. We do no one a service if we condemn as negative and hence illegitimate everything that’s oppositional because we eliminate the ability to differentiate.
DOUG BAILEY: I think a confrontational ad which compares records or is based upon an incumbent’s record is perfectly legitimate and the Bush people need to understand – I’m sure they know this – this is a referendum on George Bush. That’s what this election is about and Bill Clinton is going to keep the focus right there. When George Bush tries to make it a referendum on Bill Clinton, that isn’t going to work. He is the incumbent president of the United States and so that’s – we’re going to get a lot of that.
BILL MOYERS: You told us once that once a candidate becomes the underdog, the public lets him get away with a lot more negative stuff than he would have gotten away with if he were on top. Do you think that does this mean – does this give George Bush permission to get really mean?
DOUG BAILEY: Well, I think the polls certainly give George Bush a little more leeway. He is the underdog. But it’s a very unusual thing for an incumbent president of the United States to be an underdog and so I’m not quite sure how much freedom he has. He has some, but let me say that the bad polls also put a lot of pressure on whatever he does being
interpreted as being desperate. You know, when he comes with an attack on Bill Clinton, the public may say, “Oh, well, he’s behind, so it doesn’t bother me so much that he’s doing that, but he’s behind, so he’s desperate, so I don’t believe it.” So there’s a two-edged sword with that.
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Doug, you managed the campaign for the last underdog president, who almost won against a challenger. What you did for Gerald Ford, I think, would be instructive for George Bush, using real people in real situations, raising serious questions about the challenger.
DOUG BAILEY: I think the credibility of our – I agree with that. Thank you. I agree with it because the credibility of our politicians is so low that when they make the attack or some anonymous third person announcer makes the attack-“Oh, it’s just politics.” But when men and women in the street make the attack-
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Or in Arkansas.
DOUG BAILEY: – or in Arkansas, say about – say something about Bill Clinton because they know something about Bill Clinton, they’re more believable. They’re more credible.
BILL MOYERS: A lot of political messages are getting out that are not
controlled by the campaigns or even inspired by the campaigns. There’s a lot of political discourse going on beyond the campaigns. I want to show you a video that was produced by a Grammy Award-winning performer named Don Was and it was shown four times on MTV to all the young people who were watching. It’s called “Read My Lips.” Look at this.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I will not raise the taxes on the working men and women of this country!
Read my lips, no new taxes!
Read my lips, no new taxes!
Read my lips, no new taxes!
The flexible freeze will get the deficit gone by, you know, ’91 or ’92.
Well, today’s unemployment figures show the economy is moving in the right direction.
The economy is strengthening.
The economy’s on the right track.
I’m not prepared to say we’re in recession. It is not-it does not fit the definition of recession.
This recession is far less deep than the previous recession and
Read my lips … Read my lips … Read my lips … Read my lips!
My stand is this. I oppose abortion. I oppose federal funding of abortion except in the case of rape, incest and the life of the mother. I do not favor repeal of the – of the Constitution in that regard.
What you’re saying is this shows that I supported federal funding if there is rape or incest, I think. And I don’t recall that, but if it’s there, fine. That’s not my position now and I don’t – I don’t recall it as being my position then.
Read my lips … Read my lips … Read my lips … Read my lips!
And I am firmly positioned in favor of- uh- uh- uh- you know, of overturn of Roe-Wade.
And that’s my position and I’m not going to change that position.
You know, there has been, I have to make a confession, an evolution in my position.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think happens to the political sensibilities of young people watching a political discourse like that?
DOUG BAILEY: Well, unfortunately, I suspect that that is a very powerful communication. It’s in their medium. They will enjoy it. It’s entertaining. I must say, also, to make central to the 1992 campaign the theme line that George Bush made central to the 1988 campaign I’m not sure is out of bounds. A lot of the editing – well, it contributes to – it is ridicule and it contributes to the debasing of our whole political process. It is like the nightly monologues for older folks, when all the jokes seem these days to be about politicians, regardless of party. It debases the process and makes it very difficult, I think, for candidates of the future to say, “The way to change our system is to lead, is to have something to say, is to be bold and outspoken,” because anything they say is going to get treated this way.
BILL MOYERS: Is this the future?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: I’m afraid that it is. The – and what this is is visual and tonal ad hominem. What it essentially does is-
BILL MOYERS: Say that again?
KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Sorry. What this basically does is invites you to ridicule George Bush and it does it by the tone and by the editing and it’s editing things out of context. What it invites you to think is George Bush said “Read my lips” and then went and laughed about it. Part of the problem with television is its capacity to take things that don’t belong together and put them together to forge false inferences. And in that inference that’s invited by having George Bush apparently laughing at his own positions, you know, is an invitation to cynicism that I think is very unhealthy. I don’t think this is the sort of ad/news/ I don’t know what you call it since it wasn’t paid, that we ought to approve.
DOUG BAILEY: I will say, in 25 years in the consulting business, though, I have come to have an extraordinary faith in the good sense of the American people to treat that for what it is, smile through it and then treat that for what it is. And I think that’s just as true of young people as it is of older folks. What I think is missing in the campaign, however-there’s so much attention to communicating this way or in some of the ads we’ve seen with all of the visuals and so forth, there doesn’t seem to me to be the one thing that everybody, whether it’s Macomb or anywhere else in this country, is learning – is yearning for in this campaign and that is some leadership talking about tough issues that the people know are tough. We have ducked an awful lot of issues in this campaign.
BILL MOYERS: Thank you very much, Doug Bailey, thank you, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, because communicating brings us to our next guest. Her name is Peggy Noonan. And if George Bush is in trouble in Macomb County and can’t connect with the economic distress of the voters there, it may be because he does not have Ms. Noonan around this year to help him speak their language. Between 1984 and 1989, Peggy Noonan wrote memorable phrases and speeches for Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Just listen.
NASA MISSION CONTROL: Challenger, go with throttle up.
CHALLENGER: Roger. Go with throttle up.
PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: [January 28, 1986] The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: [August 18, 1988] This is America, a brilliant diversity, spread like stars, like 1,000 points of light in a broad and peaceful sky. I want a kinder and gentler nation.
BILL MOYERS: Peggy Noonan and I first met in the early 1980s when we both worked for CBS News. She wrote radio news and commentaries. Peggy grew up in an Irish Catholic working class family in the suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey, where people like her were in love with John F. Kennedy and then found a new home in the Republican Party. Leaving the White House after the election of President Bush, she wrote a best-selling memoir, What I Saw at the Revolution: A Political Life in the Reagan Era. Now she’s back in New York and we met the other day to talk politics.
In that Macomb County report, the last worker we interviewed said, “If you give me a job, I’ll take care of my family and our family values.” That’s where their distress is. What do you say to him?
PEGGY NOONAN: If you mean his essential distress is that he is unemployed, of course it is. If he’s unemployed, he can’t support his family. Everybody wants to work and everybody wants a job. And when the economy is in such shape that everybody can’t have a job, you’re in – you’re in terrible shape. I don’t – I mean, I’m your basic conservative Republican. I don’t believe everybody deserves a hand-out, but everybody absolutely deserves a chance and options and just a chance to get into the workforce and a chance to start someplace and a chance to – to create their lives and their fate. So-
BILL MOYERS: So what can George Bush do between now and the election to say that to that fellow and his family in Michigan? Write the speech.
PEGGY NOONAN: Oh, I can’t write the speech.
BILL MOYERS: That’s true.
PEGGY NOONAN: And – and the President doesn’t need me or anybody else to write that speech for him. He, to that fellow in Macomb County, should talk a little bit about what went wrong and why the economy turned south and what we can do to make it come back up again. You know, an honest – an honest speech, a very honest approach about these things in which you admit what you’ve done wrong, talk about what you’ve tried to do right and have occasionally been stopped from doing.
The American people are very smart. They like it when you treat them with respect, and when you give them the truth, you’re giving them respect. You know, you’re paying them the compliment of your candor. They always respect that. And I’ll tell you, the American people will always cut a politician some slack when they can tell two things. One is that the politician is operating from – from certain principles. And the other is that the guy’s trying to tell you the truth.
BILL MOYERS: People feel so unhappy right now. They don’t feel good about politics or politicians. Why do you think that is?
PEGGY NOONAN: Oh, a million reasons. I mean, you know – you know all the obvious suspects. I mean, when you have a Congress that is viewed by an entire nation as one big whorehouse, you’re in trouble and I think that’s how Congress is viewed. Politicians love to call what they’re involved in “public service,” you know? “I’m here to serve the public.” But we all get this funny feeling that they’re not really serving the public. They’re serving their own interests, their personal ambition, their desire to rise in their world, their desire to be something.
I think on a national level, a problem that regular folks have with both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush is they, the people, perceive that – that both candidates are pandering to them, and in a way that is almost that I think is almost insulting to the voter. The voter is smart. When you go – when you’re Bill Clinton and you go before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, to their annual convention, and the gist of your speech is, “I will probably let you pick the next cabinet chief who oversees your affairs. And by the way, any amount of money that you think you need to run your hospitals, I’ll certainly give it to you” and “Really pretty much anything you want, Iíll give it to you,” what he’s really saying is, “My fellow porkers, I know you talk about patriotism, but patriotism isn’t where you’re at. Self-interest, taking care of your own interest group is where you’re at and I’m just here to tell you that I’ll take care of your little interest group if you, A, support me or, B, just don’t give me too much trouble. Thank you very much.” Well, that is very insulting. I mean, I can’t imagine that anyone in that veterans’ audience thought, “Gee, this is great. I love being pandered because this man knows how low my motives are.”
BILL MOYERS: Is Bush pandering, too?
PEGGY NOONAN: Oh, there is certainly from the President – I mean, this is a president who knows, he really knows deep in his heart and in his mind, that we have to, as a nation, talk very seriously again about federal spending, about all of state spending, federal, state, local spending and taxation, federal, state, local taxation. This is an on-going problem. That is what your budget deficit problem is, a spending problem. The President knows he’s got to be talking about that. The way he talks about it is to say, ”You know, this government is much too big and spends too much” and everybody goes, ”Yay!” And then he says, ”By the way, I know you need a few more price supports for your wheat” or for your wabbits [sic], or whatever the heck it is you grow, “so believe me, I’m increasing your price supports because”-he’s almost saying ”because that’s an investment,” as Clinton does, “investment” being, of course, code for “I’m spending your money. I hope you like me for it.”
BILL MOYERS: I think that is what is bothering the country so much, including those people out in Macomb County. Frederick Hayek – “Nothing makes conditions more unbearable than the knowledge that no effort of ours can change them.”
PEGGY NOONAN: Oh, yes.
BILL MOYERS: And I think so many people feel out there that no matter who they vote for, they are not going to be able to be involved in changing the fundamental gridlock, hypocrisy, whatever it is you just described-
PEGGY NOONAN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: -that enables politicians to get away with pandering to enough people to squeak by in an election so they can get their hands on power. In fact, you said-you said in your Newsweek piece, I guess, that this campaign has just come down to two white guys fighting for power.
PEGGY NOONAN: That is how it is perceived. It’s a white guy fist fight over power. They both want power. They both want to be the guy who picks up the phone and says, “Call so-and-so” and the White House operator says, “Mr. Smith, Mr. Jones is calling you from the White House.” You get the impression sometimes that’s what they’re fighting about, who gets the White House operator to place their calls. It is terrible when you start to think about it. It’s terrible when a democracy starts to think that. It doesn’t mean the democracy-the people of the democracy are cynical. They’re not. They’re perceptive. It’s very bad when they start to perceive that.
BILL MOYERS: What should it be about? If it’s not – I agree with you. It’s a fist fight-
PEGGY NOONAN: Oh, gee, there’s no shortage of great questions, you know? First of all, this is the great post-war election. World War II is over now. This is the great post-World War II election. World War II ended in a strange twilight struggle between us and the evil empire. Well, the evil empire is gone. This is the great election in which – in which we can talk about a new world and a new America in that world and talk about where we’re going to put our resources and what we want to do as a nation, what we stand for as a nation.
First of all, we could be talking in a really interesting way about foreign policy. One of the most interesting topics going on informally in America these days is when do you commit U.S. power and U.S. force to some international problem? How come – how come Kuwait and not Bosnia? You know, normal, regular humans are talking about this.
And Bill Clinton and George Bush are not talking about what their whole grid is. When they think about America in the world, what are they thinking about? Are they thinking, ”Well, everything’s episodic. We’ll see what comes up and handle it”? Do they have a philosophy? That’s only one thing that would be quite interesting for people to hear about.
Another thing is, we have to re-introduce and re-think about spending and taxing. Americans, they have an intuitive sense you know, they probably can’t tell you about M-1 and all of this stuff and money supply, you know, and what’s going on in Europe with regard to the currencies. But they have a strong, intuitive, smart sense that the growing budget deficit is a threat to our country.
Also, Americans like justice and they know it’s not fair to their kids and their grandchildren. They know we’ve got to get that straight. Well, when you have one candidate, the Democrat, more or less saying, “I’ll increase taxes and frankly, I’ll increase spending” and implicitly saying, “Believe me, you’re not – the deficit sure ain’t going to fall under me,” and you have another candidate, who is the Republican, more or less saying, “I don’t really mean to increase spending too much and I certainly don’t want to increase taxes again,” his implicit message is “It’s really not going to fall under me.” Well, America – you know, that’s disturbing for people. That means there’s no hope that that situation’s going to get better and people always need hope. You know what I think figures in? A certain amount of detachment. President Bush has been in the bigs, in the big leagues-
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, almost 30 years.
PEGGY NOONAN: -since, I guess -well, since the ’70s, right?
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
PEGGY NOONAN: Since the ’70s, when he started being a serious player, as they say at CIA. So he’s detached by nature of the life he has led. He is also, amazingly enough and terribly enough, been literally in the White House for 12 years. Well, you couldn’t have a more detaching from – reality experience than being in the White House, in the very biggest ways to the very smallest. For one thing – I mean, if you’ve been in the White House of a president or vice president for 12 years, you have an odd view of human nature after a while. For one thing, you think everybody’s polite because all you have to do is walk out of your office, say “Hello,” and they go, “Oh, hello. How do you do? Hello. Can I get you anything? Would you like a flower? Can I get you a glass of water? Here’s a car. Can I take you anywhere you would like to go?”
I knew an anchorman who, after some years of being an anchorman for a network, he used to sit back and talk about how polite the people are on the streets and how wonderful cabbies are and stuff. And I thought, ”You’re an anchorman. How would you know how normal people are?” So that’s how it is on one side here, the strange view of life that President Bush might have, just as a person, versus Bill Clinton.
Now, Bill Clinton’s been the governor of a state since he was 12 or 13 years old. I don’t know. He decided – I love the picture of Clinton, it’s a quite touching picture, almost bowing from the waist as he meets John Kennedy for the first time, his beaux ideal. You can see as they touch, you know, there’s a certain ET-like flavor to it as if Bill was discovering ambition, looking at Kennedy and thinking, “That is what I’d like to be.” He decided – I mean, puberty and ambition hit him at the same time, a very dangerous and terrible thing to happen to any human. He just decided as a child he wanted to be president of the United States and he viewed life and people through the special tunnel of his ambition. And he naturally viewed government as the thing he wanted to lead, as the thing he wanted to play with and manipulate. “Government is good,” you know?
If you’ve been a businessman for a few years, you have very different views about what government is, you know? You’re a guy – you own two dry cleaners. You have federal and state government statutes governing what you can do as a guy who owns two dry cleaners. You’ll have a very different view of government than a guy who decided at 14 he wanted to run government and has only worked in government and who loves government and who thinks it’s a big, you know, marvelous thing he can massage every day. So-
BILL MOYERS: The United States of ambition.
PEGGY NOONAN: Yeah! So what you’ve got is two fellows who have been seriously detached from life, as normal humans live it, being discussed by two other people who are a little more detached than normal from life, as normal humans live it. So – so the process is not pure and can be problematic, you know?
BILL MOYERS: That’s a very odd point. It’s very hard for those of us who cover politics and those who run politics to get out of this loop we’re in, this – this sort of incestuous conversation and understanding of the way the game is played.
PEGGY NOONAN: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Although I suppose if you – even if you’re affluent, you’ve got to – if you’re a single mother raising a child by yourself, you’ve got to think about the street. You’ve got to think about reality out there, right?
PEGGY NOONAN: Sure, I do. And I – and I also hang out with normal folks, as I’m sure you do. But this whole – you know, the politicians-
BILL MOYERS: producers, cameramen-
PEGGY NOONAN: Yeah, right!
BILL MOYERS: Normal folks.
PEGGY NOONAN: Normal as these people are, and I’d like you to pan over here and show America! The process is not only difficult in terms of who’s running, but it is also difficult in terms of who talks about who’s running and what their flaws and foibles are. You’re a big TV guy. I’m a writer. We live in Manhattan. We both used to live in Washington, which is like Saturn. And then we moved up here, which is like Mars. It’s not exactly like living on the continent. It’s not exactly like being part of this big, stretched continent which is America, you know? We’re an island off the continent in so many ways. I mean, literally and-
BILL MOYERS: No, I think that’s right.
PEGGY NOONAN: -metaphorically. So-
BILL MOYERS: That’s why I think that if you could have a true debate between Bush and Clinton – no press, none of us there, just a moderator keeping time – they might learn from each other.
PEGGY NOONAN: Yeah. Oh, they might really look into each other’s souls and just think, “Ick,” you know? I’m not sure they’d really learn from each other. As a voter and as a viewer of this election, I do personally prefer the one low-key anchor guy or anchorwoman, one person, with these two candidates, who do get to engage with each other and who do get to disagree.
There is a certain amount of inevitable preening among reporters, understandably. If I were picked to – one of the four reporters on a panel to question these two fellows running for president, I would try to think of the cleverest question possible. I wouldn’t do the responsible follow-up of anybody else’s question. I’d want to do the really great, ”What would you do if your daughter were raped by a Republican who’s in jail?” You know, I – you know, these exotic questions they ask. I’d try to think exotic questions, too. That’s always fun, but it’s also silly.
So one person having a bunch of serious and interesting questions and two candidates with enough time to talk about it would be a lot of fun and I’d like to see them engage each other. It’d be interesting for us.
BILL MOYERS: Or letting – yes, letting them ask each other the questions. Forget the moderator’s questions.
PEGGY NOONAN: That’d be great.
BILL MOYERS: I mean, you could keep time, I could keep time, anybody could keep time. But it’s really the two candidates who ought to be asking questions of one another, don’t you think?
PEGGY NOONAN: That’d be fine. It’s not an original thing to say, but more and more I think part of the problem is that modern politics has become so bizarre, so demanding, so – so tearing apart of candidates that you have to be a strange and a somewhat insensitive, maybe even somewhat doltish person in some ways in order to flourish in politics. You can’t be too sensitive. You can’t have a refined sensibility. You can’t have delicate and highly refined intellectual thoughts because the process will tear you apart. But if you’re a sort of more phlegmatic – if I’m saying that correctly – and more doltish person, you’ll probably do OK. You don’t really mind it if 14 people are sticking a microphone up your nose as soon as you get up in the morning or asking you outrageously personal and impertinent questions or – or picking on your kids, making it impossible for your kids to go to school unmolested by some sort of media person. It is a dehumanizing process.
BILL MOYERS: How would you like to see this campaign evolve in the last six weeks so that it might come closer to addressing some of these concerns?
PEGGY NOONAN: Oh, I don’t know. That’s saying, “Get a little fabulous and romantic about the next six weeks.” I’m not sure I would be. The next six weeks are going to be quite a shoot-out, you know? You’re going to have two planes in the air. It’s going to be the Bush plane with the Bush staff, Clinton plane with the Clinton staff. And between them, they’re going to be going [imitates machine gun]. They’re going to be strafing each other. It’s going to be a tarmac shoot-out.
Oh, God. You know what I think it’s going to come down to? Which party do you trust a little bit more to make things either, A, a little bit better or, B, not much worse? That’s what it’s going to come down to.
BILL MOYERS: That’s it for tonight except for this brief final word about the missing debates. The Kettering Foundation conducted a serious study last year of our democracy. It showed that voters feel excluded from the political process by politicians, press and pollsters, who talk a strange language only insiders can grasp, a kind of secret ritual to which voters are exposed even as they are excluded. Watch almost any political television dominated by professionals and you’ll see them sort of wink at each other as they thrust and parry, indulging a fraternal obligation to help one another avoid reality. Under the old rules, we journalists became co-conspirators in a public charade.
The proposed new format at least held the possibility of breaking up that old gang, forcing the candidates to match wits without benefit of a safety net held up by journalists. We’re not the candidates’ equal anyway. They’re the ones who raise taxes, appoint judges and declare war. Let them test each other. There’s plenty for us journalists to do once the show’s over. By getting out of the way, we leave the candidates center stage and you where you belong, in the very first row.
I’m Bill Moyers. See you next time.
You can view more about the Listening To America series on this website.
This transcript was entered on April 8, 2015.