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Authors: Jim Lehrer

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The Last Debate

BOOK: The Last Debate
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Copyright © 1995 by Jim Lehrer

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is available.
eISBN: 978-0-307-82445-5



Those are the facts. Deal with them as you will.


Author’s Note

I was in Colonial Williamsburg for the Meredith-Greene presidential debate on an assignment from
The New American Tatler
magazine. I was compelled to stay full-time on the story for the next eighteen months by my passionate belief that it was an event that changed forever the practice of journalism in America.

I have tried in this book to re-create in fullest possible detail the circumstances, environment, and process surrounding what happened that night. Some people are certain those four journalists—famous now and forevermore as the Williamsburg Four—committed American journalism’s most heroic act. Others charge with equal fervor and certainty that they perpetrated American journalism’s most heinous crime. I offer my own conclusions at the end of the book, but I do so with the full and humble acknowledgment that in matters of this magnitude all opinions and impressions are mostly equal.

The reporting and writing route I traveled was the traditional one charted by the six basics of journalism—Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. I was fortunate in that I had access to the recollections and perspectives of most of the principal players. Three of the four journalist-panelists cooperated fully. The fourth, debate moderator Michael J. Howley, followed a stonewall strategy toward me. That was unfortunate, because he emerged clearly and cleanly from my reporting as the central figure of the story. But I had only one restricted and unpleasant interview session with him. He later asked for the right to submit a written response once my work was finished. I agreed, and you will find Howley’s unedited and unabridged words as an appendix at the end of the book. I urge you to read them carefully.

Howley was one of 178 persons I interviewed at least once. Many of the interviews were recorded on audiotape, and I intend to turn over the tapes as well as my notes to a suitable academic depository for use by scholars at some future date—probably no sooner than fifty years from now.

There are only a few instances in the text—mostly involving differing memories and versions of what happened—where I have tied individuals directly to specific quotes or pieces of information. There are also no footnotes or endnotes in which sources are identified. I avoided specific attributions wherever possible to protect my sources—for now, at least—but it was also a matter of technique. I chose to present the story of the Williamsburg Debate in a narrative form rather than in the more traditional journalistic style. I thought the needs of story flow and of delving into the more difficult and complex areas of mind and thought, character and motive, required that method. James Atlas, writing recently in
The New York Times
, described such hybrid forms of reporting as “Journalism as Novel, the Novel as Journalism.” Whatever the label, I am prepared for the criticism my approach may bring.

I am also reconciled to coping with the attacks of Michael Howley. In his closing statement, he already accuses me of several journalistic sins—the worst and most absurd being the outright invention of people and events. Coming as it does from a man who could go down in history as American journalism’s most notable sinner, this may give new meaning to the old look-who’s-calling-the-kettle-black line.

But that, of course, is only one of many things that each of you readers must decide for yourself.

—Tom Chapman
New York

Part 1
Who, When, Where
First Light

t had a quiet beginning.

Six people were present, the most important being the two campaign managers—Brad Lilly for Democratic nominee Paul L. Greene and Jack Turpin for David Donald Meredith, the Republican nominee. Each came, as agreed, with another campaign official. General counsel Calvin Anderson was there for Greene; deputy campaign manager Freddy J. Hill was the second Meredith person. The other two participants were Chuck Hammond and Nancy Dewey, the director and assistant director/executive producer, respectively, of the National Commission on Presidential Debates.

They were in the K Street Washington offices of the debate commission behind the closed doors of a conference room decorated with large colored photographs of scenes from past presidential debates. Turpin and Hill sat on one side of a large dark-wood table, Lilly and Anderson directly across on the other. Hammond and Dewey sat side by side at one end.

It was shortly after two
, October 7—eight days and four hours before the debate was scheduled to begin in Williamsburg, Virginia.

They first took a vow of silence. Never would any of the six talk publicly about what was said over the next few minutes or hours it took to pick the four journalists who would be on the debate panel.

Then Nancy Dewey passed out two pieces of white typing paper clipped together. The first page had four names typed on it. There were at least fifty other names on the second page.

“We recommend the four there on the top page,” she said. “On any slots we can’t agree, there is a pool on page two from which we can draw.”

Lilly looked at the four names, consulted in whispers with Anderson, and said: “They look fine to us.”

All attention moved to Turpin. After a few tight, silent seconds in which he gazed only at the first page and did no consulting with Hill, Turpin slammed the papers down on the table and said: “This is an outrage!”

Nancy Dewey took a breath and held it and her tongue.

“What’s the problem?” Hammond said.

“There’s no diversity!” Turpin shouted.

“Bullshit. There are two women, a black, and a Hispanic,” Hammond said. “I don’t know how much more diverse it is possible to be.”

Lilly, Anderson, Dewey, and Hammond say Turpin then stuck his right hand out in front of him, let his wrist go limp, and said effeminately, “Like where are

Turpin and Hill deny it happened.

They also deny what the others say happened next. Turpin made his right hand into a fist and pumped it against his mouth and said: “There are none of them redskins either. Whoop, whoop, tom, tom, scalp, scalp.” Then he squinted his eyes and said: “And what about some slants? They’re 11.2 percent of the electorate in California, you know. Chop, chop, chink, chink, jap, jap.”

Turpin, while denying it happened, claims that if he had said or done anything along these lines it would have been meant as good-humored satire, designed to make fun of the excesses sometimes found these days in the area of political correctness.

Everyone remembers Turpin saying: “Just kidding. Don’t turn me in to the thought police.” There was a round of smiles and laughs. No one remembers anyone speaking up to protest Turpin’s conduct.

Turpin came to the meeting prepared for the serious business that followed. He and Hill brought with them a two-inch-thick loose-leaf note book of background reports and other material on most of the leading journalists in Washington.

“He’s a Democrat,” Turpin said of Don Beard, the CNS News anchorman whose name appeared first on the commission’s paper. “There is no way we are going to sit still for him moderating this debate.”

Lilly said: “Don Beard’s no Democrat. He’s spreading one helluva lot more crap on us than he is on you every night at six-thirty Eastern Time.”

“Maybe there’s more of it to spread every night at six-thirty Eastern Time,” Turpin said. Then reading from a page in his notebook, he said: “Beard’s mother and father have always registered as Democrats in Arizona. He is a personal friend of Mo Udall. Beard’s wife worked as a volunteer in the Kennedy, Johnson, McGovern, Carter, and Mondale campaigns. The poor soul even labored for Dukakis. His daughter is engaged to a young lawyer who works in the Manatt law firm in Los Angeles. He has lunch regularly in New York with Moynihan. He has never had lunch with D’Amato.”

“OK, OK,” Lilly said. “Scratch Beard.” Lilly resisted the temptation to say passing up lunch with D’Amato was a provable act of nonpartisanship.

Dewey and Hammond nodded their agreement on Beard.

“I hereby move that we also scratch Jessica Mueller,” Turpin said. Jessica Mueller was the second name on the top list of four. She was White House correspondent for
World News
magazine. “She’s a lib, through and through.”

“She does straight reporting for the magazine,” said Nancy Dewey.

“I assume you have seen her on
Washington Talk-Talk-Talk

“Certainly. My God, yes. It’s the best of the TV food-fight shows. Yes …”

“She’s the house lib on that show, pure and simple. She expresses her opinion, she attacks.” Looking down at his book again, Turpin said: “In seventy-three separate statements she has made on
about my candidate during this campaign, only fourteen were positive. All of the others—all fifty-nine—were negative. So, please.”

“They used to not let straight reporters also give their opinions like that,” Lilly said. “It started with Broder, then Eleanor Clift and that clown from the San Francisco paper—I’ve already forgotten his name—and then the other bureau chiefs and newsmagazine types. Now it’s any- and everybody. You can’t tell the reporters from the commentators and comedians anymore. The clownalists, as they’re called …”

Turpin said: “Broder’s different, but I know what you mean. Nobody knows about it more than me and my man and my campaign. Can we agree to scratch her is the question.”

Lilly and the others, each in his or her own way, put a line through the name of Jessica Mueller.

“Now to the two dark ones,” Turpin said, in what can only be interpreted as a reference to the fact that the last two of the four names on the commission’s top list were those of a black and a Hispanic. Ray Adair, a political reporter for
The Washington Post
, was the black. Maria Chavez-Jones, National Public Radio’s chief congressional correspondent, was the Hispanic. Turpin told me he did not remember saying “dark ones,” but that if he did he did not mean it in a racial way.

“Ray Adair’s father signed an ad in the
New Orleans Times-Picayune
calling my candidate ‘a modern-day Klansman,’ ” Turpin said. “Adair the kid has written nothing but negative stories about the impact the election of my man would have on the so-called African American community.”

“All he’s been doing is telling the truth,” Lilly said. “You can’t keep a person off this panel for telling the truth.”

“I’m also not sure what someone’s parents do is relevant,” Chuck Hammond said.

BOOK: The Last Debate
3.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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