1976: CARTER VS. FORD

By Andrea Stone

 

 

The 1976 campaign was the first since 1960 to feature televised debates after major party candidates refused to go one-on-one with opponents in the interim.

 

President Gerald Ford sought to be elected in his own right after succeeding Richard Nixon, who resigned during the Watergate scandal. Ford’s approval rating had plummeted when he pardoned Nixon and he barely survived a Republican primary challenge from Ronald Reagan. Going into the fall, he was trailing Democratic Gov. Jimmy Carter of Georgia and determined he needed to prove himself on the debate stage.

 

Ford knew how style had beaten substance in 1960 so he prepared on a simulated television set complete with cameras, lights and makeup. He listened to recordings of Carter’s speeches and played back tapes of his own practice sessions in order to hone his delivery. His hours of rehearsal would later be repeated by future candidates who hunker down for days doing mock debates before the real thing.

 

Yet none of that prepared him for the first debate in Philadelphia on September 23 when an hour in, a technical glitch cut the audio feed for 27 minutes. Ford and Carter both froze before the live studio audience. Neither moved the entire time for fear they would look bad on television.

 

The second debate in San Francisco on October 6 proved more memorable -- and devastating -- for Ford. The president was considered more versed than Carter on foreign policy so he stunned the nation when he declared: "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.”[1] When the incredulous moderator, Max Frankel of The New York Times, pointed to the military occupation in what was then a communist zone, Ford doubled down to insist Yugoslavia, Poland and Romania were free from Soviet influence.

 

The embarrassing gaffe was widely blamed for Ford’s loss on Election Day but at least some of the blame could go to "Saturday Night Live," the comedy show that debuted the year before and has since taken its place at the “center stage of American politics.”[2]

 

Ford, who had famously fallen down the stairs of Air Force One and was considered an intellectual lightweight, was played by "SNL’s" Chevy Chase as a stumbling, bumbling president in faux debates and other sketches. For many Americans, the "SNL" version of him and other politicians left a bigger impression than the candidates themselves.

 

"SNL" became so influential that Ford agreed to appear on the show, ushering in “a new era of politicians mixing it up with popular culture” that continues to this day as they “try and prove how fun-loving, regular, and how in-on-the-joke they really are.[3]

Full First Debate September 23 in Philadelphia: https://www.c-span.org/video/?33353-1/1976-presidential-candidates-debate

Full Second Debate October 6 in San Francisco: https://www.c-span.org/video/?33210-1/1976-presidential-candidates-debate

[1] https://www.realclearpolitics.com/lists/debatemoments/geraldford.html

[2]"Saturday Night Live and the 1976 Presidential Election: A New Voice Enters Campaign Politics” - William Horner and M. Heather Carver. McFarland & Company Inc. 2018; p. 12

[3] Ibid, p. 19

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