Convention Center Music Hall
October 28, 1980
The man with twenty-four years to live steps onstage.
Polite applause washes over Ronald Reagan as he strides to his lectern for the 1980 presidential debate. The former movie star and two-term governor of California is striving to become president of the United States at the relatively advanced age of sixty-nine. His jet-black pompadour, which he swears he does not dye, is held in place by a dab of Brylcreem. His high cheeks are noticeably rosy, as if they have been rouged — although the color may also have come from the glass of wine he had with dinner. At six foot one and 190 pounds, Reagan stands tall and straight, but his appearance does not intimidate: rather, he looks to be approachable and kind.
The governor's opponent is incumbent president Jimmy Carter. At five nine and 155 pounds, the slender Carter has the build of a man who ran cross-country in college. In fact, the president still makes time for four miles a day. Carter is a political junkie, immersing himself in every last nuance of a campaign. He has made a huge surge in the polls over the last two months. Carter knows that with one week until Election Day, the race is almost dead even. The winner of this debate will most likely win the presidency, and if it is Carter, his comeback will be one of the greatest in modern history. In another reality, a Carter loss would make him the first president in nearly fifty years to be voted out of office after just one full term. Still boyish at fifty-six, but with a face lined by the rigors of the presidency, he now stands opposite Reagan, a man he loathes.
The feeling is mutual. Reagan privately refers to the current president of the United States as "a little shit."
* * *
As President Carter stands behind the pale-blue lectern, he makes a sly sideward glance at his opponent. Carter is all business and believes that Ronald Reagan is not his intellectual equal. He has publicly stated that Reagan is "untruthful and dangerous" and "different than me in almost every basic element of commitment and experience and promise to the American people."
At his acceptance speech at the August 1980 Democratic National Convention, Carter made it clear that the upcoming election would be "a stark choice between two men, two parties, two sharply different pictures of what America is and the world is."
The president concluded by adding, "It's a choice between two futures."
Indeed, Carter appears to be the smarter man. He graduated fifty-ninth in a class of 820 from the U.S. Naval Academy and spent his military career onboard nuclear submarines. The Georgia native with the toothy smile possesses an easy command of facts and figures. He has hands-on experience in foreign and domestic policy and often speaks in soothing intellectual sound bites.
In 1976, Carter defeated his Republican opponent, Gerald R. Ford, in their three debates, and he is sure he will do the same tonight. Political pollster Pat Caddell, the nation's leading authority on presidential elections and a member of the Carter campaign, predicts that Carter will clinch the election with a decisive debate victory.
Two months ago, Reagan's lead in the polls was sixteen points. But if the election were held today, polls indicate Carter would garner 41 percent of the vote and Reagan 40. However, Caddell has strongly warned Carter against debating Reagan. The biggest knock against Reagan politically is the perception that he is a warmonger. Caddell believes that a debate would allow Reagan to counter those fears by appearing warm and collected rather than half-cocked. Once it became clear that Carter was intent on a public debate, his advisers pressed for the long, ninety-minute format that will be used tonight, hoping that Reagan will wear down and say something stupid.
That would hardly be a first. Ronald Reagan is so prone to saying the wrong thing at the wrong time that his campaign staff has been known to call him "old foot-in-the-mouth." Perhaps the worst public gaffe of his career will occur in Brazil. Speaking at a dinner in that nation's capital city of Brasilia, Reagan will hoist his glass, proposing a toast to the people of Bolivia.
But Reagan is no fool and is much more incisive than Carter about the Soviet Union's Communist regime. He despises it. But he has no foreign policy experience to refer to. Reagan memorizes speeches and phrases, rather than immersing himself in heavy study or specific details. While this might not be a problem at most campaign events, where Reagan can read from a prepared speech, it could be trouble here in Cleveland: the rules of the debate stipulate that neither candidate is allowed to bring notes to the stage.
Yet Reagan will not admit to being at a disadvantage. He believes his communications skills will make up for his lesser book smarts. Reagan, in fact, is far different from how most people perceive him. He has an army of close acquaintances but few friends. He freely offers his opinions about public policy but rarely shares deep personal thoughts. Some who work for him think Reagan is distant and lazy, as he so often lets others make tough decisions for him. Others, however, find his manner warm, friendly, and endearing and his hands-off management style liberating.
Reagan does not really care what other people think. He confidently marches ahead, rarely showing any self-doubt.
To bring him luck in the debate, Reagan traveled to his native state of Illinois and visited the tomb of Abraham Lincoln this past week. He actually rubbed his nose on the statue of the great political debater, hoping some of Lincoln's brilliance would rub off on him.
Not that Reagan is intimidated. Of Carter he has said condescendingly, "He knows he can't win a debate if it were held in the Rose Garden before an audience of Administration officials, with the questions being asked by Jody Powell," referencing the president's hard-living press secretary.
The truth is that Reagan's campaign has lost whatever momentum it once possessed. "Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign may be running out of steam," wrote the Wall Street Journal on October 16.
"I think Reagan is slipping everywhere," one of his top aides told reporters in an off-the-record conversation. "If he doesn't do something dramatic he is going to lose."
Meanwhile, Carter's aides are almost giddy in their optimism. "The pieces are in place for us to win," they tell Newsweek magazine.
At the stroke of 9:30, the debate begins.
* * *
Ruth Hinerfeld of the League of Women Voters opens the proceedings with a short speech. She speaks her few careful lines in a hesitant tone before handing the proceedings over to the evening's moderator, veteran journalist Howard K. Smith of ABC News. Smith sits at a desk to the front of the stage, his tie loose and his jacket unbuttoned.
"Thank you, Mrs. Hinerfeld," he says before introducing the four journalists who will launch questions at the two candidates. The chatter and applause that filled the room just moments ago have been replaced by palpable nervous tension. There is a sensation that tonight may change the course of U.S. history.
* * *
As both Reagan and Carter well know, the 1970s have been a brutal time for America. In 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned under threat of impeachment after the Watergate affair. The unchecked growth of the Soviet Union's war machine and the American failure to win the Vietnam War have tilted the global balance of power. At home, inflation, interest rates, and unemployment rates are sky-high. Gasoline shortages have led to mile-long lines at the pumps. Worst of all, there is the ongoing humiliation that came about when Iranian radicals stormed the American embassy in Tehran in 1979 and took almost the entire staff hostage. Nearly six months later, a rescue attempt failed miserably, resulting in the deaths of eight American servicemen. One week from today, when Americans go to the polls to pick a U.S. president, the fifty-two hostages will have spent exactly one year in captivity.
The United States of America is still very much a superpower, but an air of defeat, not hope, now defines its national outlook.
The small theater in which the debate will unfold was built shortly after World War I, at a time when America had flexed its muscle on the world stage and first assumed global prominence. But tonight, there is a single question on the minds of many watching this debate: can America be fixed?
Or, more to the point, are the best days of the United States of America in the past?
* * *
"Governor," asks panelist Marvin Stone, editor of the magazine U.S. News & World Report, "you have been criticized for being all too quick to advocate the use of lots of muscle, military action, to deal with foreign crises. Specifically, what are the differences between the two of you on the uses of American military power?"
Reagan's career as a Hollywood actor has seen him through a number of personal highs and lows. He has experienced failure and divorce, and endured the humiliation of acting in films that made him look ridiculous. But he has also learned poise under fire and the art of delivering a line. Now, as Stone zeroes in on what some see as a glaring weakness in Reagan's résumé, those communication skills desert him. He fumbles for words. Eloquence is replaced by odd pauses. "I believe with all my heart," Reagan says slowly, as if he has forgotten the question completely, "that our first priority must be world peace."
Offstage, in the Carter campaign's greenroom, the president's staff roars with laughter as they watch an uncomfortable Reagan on a television monitor.
There is more to Reagan's answer, but it is clear that he is searching for a way to leave the moment behind and revert to the well-rehearsed lines he has prepared for tonight. "I'm a father of sons," Reagan finally says, finding a way to use one of those scripted answers. "I have a grandson. I don't ever want to see another generation of young Americans bleed their lives into sandy beachheads in the Pacific, or rice paddies and jungles in Asia, or the muddy, bloody battlefields of Europe."
About ten feet away, Carter grips his lectern as if standing at a church pulpit. His eyes are tired and his face pinched. Naturally peevish, he is tired from staying up late trying to negotiate the release of the American hostages in Iran. The talks are at a delicate point, and he knows that his electoral victory is assured if he succeeds. Carter is so preoccupied with these talks that he initially refused to spend time prepping for the debate. The lack of sleep has made him short-tempered, tense, and difficult to be around. This fatigue also makes it difficult for Carter to hide his utter contempt for Reagan as they share the stage.
When it comes his turn to field the same question, the president speaks in simple declarative sentences, reminding the audience and the millions watching on television that he is committed to a strong national defense. He mentions the American journalist H. L. Mencken by name and quotes him on the nature of problem solving. It is a literary allusion meant to remind the audience of Carter's intellect, but it is a misstep — Mencken is against religion, suspicious of democracy, and elitist. Carter's mentioning him is a thinly veiled attempt to rally the more left-leaning aspects of the Democratic Party. But the American public, Democrat and Republican alike, is in a patriotic mood. They long for a return to simple, straightforward American values. The words of H. L. Mencken only succeed in making Carter look out of touch.
Stone pounces. The balding editor leans into his microphone. He speaks to the president of the United States as if he were lecturing a cub reporter. "Under what circumstances would you use military forces to deal with, for example, a shutoff of Persian Gulf oil, if that should occur, or to counter Russian expansion beyond Afghanistan into either Iran or Pakistan? I ask this question in view of charges that we are woefully unprepared to project sustained — and I emphasize the word sustained — power in that part of the world."
Carter will reach for his water glass eleven times tonight. It is his tell, as gamblers call a nervous tic. Another tell is that Carter blinks constantly when ill at ease.
"We have made sure that we address this question peacefully, not injecting American military forces into combat but letting the strength of our nation be felt in a beneficial way," he answers, eyelids fluttering as if he were staring into the sun. "This, I believe, has assured that our interests will be protected in the Persian Gulf region, as we've done in the Middle East and throughout the world."
This is not an answer. It is an evasion. And while Carter is hoping to appear presidential and above the fray, the fact is that he looks indecisive and somewhat weak.
When it comes Reagan's turn to field the same question, he stumbles again — though only for an instant. His thought process seems to be clearing. Reagan has rehearsed this debate with adviser David Stockman, whose sharp intellect rivals that of Carter. That practice now shows in Reagan's new confidence. Statistics suddenly roll off his tongue. He rattles off the 38 percent reduction in America's military force under the Carter administration, the refusal to build sixty ships that the navy deems necessary to fulfilling its global mission, and Carter's insistence that programs to build new American bombers, missiles, and submarines be either stalled or halted altogether.
The outrage in Reagan's voice will connect to those viewers sick and tired of America's descent into global impotency.
Jimmy Carter reaches for his water glass.
* * *
More than one thousand miles west, in the city of Evergreen, Colorado, a twenty-five-year-old drifter pays little attention to the debate. Instead, John Hinckley Jr. fixates on schemes to impress Jodie Foster, the young actress who starred opposite Robert De Niro in the 1976 movie Taxi Driver — a film Hinckley has seen more than fifteen times. Even though he has never met her, Hinckley considers Jodie the love of his life and is determined to win her hand.
Hinckley's obsession with the eighteen-year-old actress is so complete that he temporarily moved to New Haven, Connecticut, to stalk her while she attended Yale University. Hinckley is a college dropout, unable to focus on his own studies, yet he had little problem sitting in on Foster's classes. In New Haven, he slid love notes under the door of her dorm room, found her phone number, and, in a brazen move, called Foster and asked her out to dinner. Shocked, she refused. So stunned was Foster by Hinckley's advances and subsequent actions that she will not speak of them for years to come.
Now, nearly penniless and having moved back in with his parents, John Hinckley ruminates over how to make Jodie Foster change her mind. His plans are grandiose and bizarre. Hinckley has contemplated killing himself right before Foster's very eyes, or perhaps hijacking an airliner.
He has even plotted the assassination of President Jimmy Carter.
The pudgy Hinckley, who wears his shaggy hair in bangs, has yet to see a psychiatrist for the schizophrenia that is slowly taking control of his brain. That appointment is still one week away. But no amount of therapy will ever stop him from thinking about Jodie Foster — and the lengths to which he must go to earn her love. Now, sitting in a small basement bedroom, Hinckley considers suicide.
Bottles of prescription pills cover his nightstand. It will take a few more days to summon his courage, but Hinckley will soon reach for the container labeled "Valium" and gobble a deadly dosage.
Once again, John Hinckley will fail.
He will wake up nauseated but alive, vowing to find some new way to impress Jodie Foster.
Killing himself is not the answer. Clearly, someone else must die.
* * *
About halfway through the ninety-four-minute debate, Ronald Reagan gets personal. "I talked to a man just briefly there who asked me one simple question," Reagan says gravely. "'Do I have reason to hope that I can someday take care of my family again?'"
Watching from the side of the stage, Nancy Reagan can see that her husband is gaining confidence with every question. This gives her solace, for Nancy was so afraid that her Ronnie would say something foolish that she initially opposed the debate. More than that of any of his advisers, it is Nancy's opinion that matters most to Reagan. They have been married twenty-eight years, and she has been a driving force behind his run for the presidency. Throughout their marriage he has chosen to address her as Mommy, a term of endearment mocked by some journalists covering Reagan.