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Authors: Jim Lehrer

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BOOK: The Last Debate
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Turpin not only said no, he said it forcefully, profanely, leaving little doubt that the decision was final. He also reminded me of the trouble the columnist George Will got into by participating in one of Ronald Reagan’s debate rehearsals. I told him I did not want to play a part, I only wanted to watch. No, he said again.

But, as a reporter, I did not often take no for the final answer on a matter this important. I saw bearing witness to that rehearsal as a monumentally important thing to do for my story. So I arranged through other means to have access to what happened at that rehearsal. What other means? I will not say. I cannot say. The person or persons who assisted me did so only on the condition that I never reveal their involvement. I gave them my word. My word is good. Did money change hands? Yes, it did. How much? Barely four figures. Again, I was reimbursed by the
(No frequent-flyer miles were awarded on this one.) So the post-debate charge in
The Washington Morning News
that I “paid sources for information and for access into chambers and sanctums” is technically correct. And I would do it again tomorrow if confronted with the same option: pay and get in—don’t pay and stay out. The public has a right to know what happened in that hotel ballroom. If the public’s right to know is the overriding energy behind journalism, what difference does it make whether the sources of the information come free or for a fee? In my opinion, it is a question from an argument that I believe is no longer relevant to the practice of journalism in this country.

What happened that evening during the rehearsal was critically revealing, particularly in light of what happened barely twenty-four hours later at the real thing.

Rusty Washburn, the former New York congressman and housing secretary, played the rehearsal part of the opponent. He had done so in
the rehearsals for debates during the primaries, and although everyone, including Turpin, had thought he got a bit carried away, good luck required that he do it again for the one and only debate of the general-election campaign.

It was a mistake. He got carried away even more this time.

Washburn, well known as a man who saw himself as president more clearly than he did Meredith, played Greene as a candidate a lot better than Greene did.

“You asked me about the federal budget deficit,” he said to one of four campaign aides playing the panelists. “That is important and I will address it, but I must first say that the most important issue the American people should be focusing on tonight is one of bigotry and division. The real question of this election is whether this nation can afford the divide-and-conquer politics of fear that my talk-show-meister opponent is dishing out. Fear of fellow Americans and immigrants who look different than us Euro-Caucasian whites. I say no. That is my answer to that question. And on Election Day, I believe that will be the answer of an overwhelming majority of the American people.”

He stood behind a podium on a stage against a far wall of the room, the Rainbow Ballroom. Meredith stood at another podium some forty feet away, and the four fake reporters were behind a table facing them. It was a good mock-up replica of what the stage would be like Sunday night in the Williamsburg Lodge auditorium. The main difference was the color scheme. The Rainbow Ballroom was mostly beige, orange, and gold. Beige carpet, orange walls, and gold light fixtures.

“Mr. Washburn,” Jack Turpin said, walking up to a spot between the mock-panelists and Washburn, “we appreciate your desire to make some points of your own, if that is what you are doing—”

“What I am doing, my friend, is trying to be helpful by making this as realistic as possible. That is what I am doing.”

Meredith, clearly annoyed with Washburn, said: “Realism in the case of my real opponent, Rusty, would require that you fall mute, dumb, or incoherent. If, on the other hand, you are speaking for yourself when you purport to be speaking for mock-candidate Greene, then I would suggest you speak for yourself only to yourself. The wisdom of electing me president of the United States is now in the hands of the American people. If
you and your like-minds in my party do not believe in my candidacy on behalf of my party, then I would suggest that it is you who have a problem, not me. Now, if we can proceed without any more of your silly and quite offensive attacks on me.”

Turpin backed away and another of the mock-journalists asked another mock-question. Rusty Washburn ignored it and said directly to Meredith: “One can only hope that some of the things you have said during this campaign are not, in fact, a truthful measure or indication of your real beliefs and intentions. One can only hope that once you are in the White House—which the polls now show is an increasingly likely possibility—that you will return to sanity and unity and common sense for the purposes of governing.”

“Get this man out of here!” Meredith screamed. His face was red and his hands were grabbing the air as if in search of something he might throw at his Republican colleague/mock-opponent behind the other podium.

Turpin led Washburn out of the ballroom. And in a few minutes the rehearsal continued with a deputy press secretary in the role of the mock-Greene.

I wrote in my notes after witnessing the episode: “This man Meredith has a temper.”

They were prophetic words indeed.

But on that Saturday evening my principal concern was trying to be in two places at more or less the same time. The Greene campaign had taken over most of the Ramada, just a few minutes away. It was already almost nine o’clock when I arrived. I was afraid I was going to have missed the Greene rehearsal, but I had given the Meredith run-through top priority, mostly on the calculated grounds that it looked like he was going to win the election. Thus what lay behind his winner’s face and postures would make a more relevant story than what lay behind those of the loser. I also thought it was possible that I could get lucky. The Greene schedule called for a later start. Maybe I could do both.

I did get lucky. I did not have to argue with anyone or offer anyone money to get what I wanted. It came easy and it came free.

The Greene debate mock-up operation was in a large meeting room on the first floor that was named after George Mason, one of the men on
the banners at the airport. He was a Virginian friend of George Washington and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Brad Lilly, whom I found having a drink in the bar when I arrived, said I could not come to the rehearsal. “No press allowed,” he said, shaking his head and waving me away.

But a few minutes later—it was now 9:15
—I simply fell in behind him and a few of his assistants for the walk to the rehearsal room. He looked at me and shrugged as we entered the room, and I found a seat off in a corner way, way out of sight and, hopefully, out of mind.

The first thing that struck me sitting there was the vast class difference in how these two campaigns operated. There were the Meredith people living down the road in a nine-story multistar luxury hotel hidden among trees bordering the upscale shopping and business area called Oyster Point. They were doing their rehearsal in a real, fully outfitted replica of the debate scene. Here were the Greene folks in a nice, modest Ramada Inn sprawled on a busy four-lane road, the kind of place usually identified with station wagons full of vacationing families. Their mock-debate setup was only a few chairs and two speaker’s podiums set around a room where events such as regional insurance sales breakfasts and lunches were usually held.

I sat there for twenty minutes before Greene appeared, accompanied by a two-man Secret Service detail. Meredith had been dressed in a dark suit with a dark burgundy tie and white shirt, exactly what he would wear at the debate itself. Greene wore slacks and a sweater.

Greene immediately motioned for Lilly to come with him away from the others, the group of aides and others who would play the various mock-parts. Where they went was very close to where I was trying to make myself invisible by sinking farther and farther down into my aluminum and black vinyl chair.

Neither Greene nor Lilly paid any attention to me.

I heard Greene say: “This is ridiculous, Brad.”

“What exactly is ridiculous, sir?” Lilly replied.

“That debate tomorrow night is going to be absolute misery for me. Why go through it twice? Why have this rehearsal?”

“In order to keep it—the real one tomorrow night—from being misery.”

“There is no way to prevent that. I have my briefing books. I will read them again tonight.”

Lilly said nothing and Greene then said: “I realize you might think, and I might even agree, the problem isn’t briefing books. But even if we’re both right, there is nothing I can do about all of that now. It is too late to have a personality transplant, which is what most everyone seems to think I need.”

“Sir, may I be blunt?” Lilly said.

“I never knew you needed permission for that. Have you given any further thought to what you might do after the campaign? I know about the book, of course. And maybe your becoming a commentator—I hope not a clownalist.”

“Governor, please! Goddamn it, sir, this thing is not over yet. It really is not. You really could go out there tomorrow night, land some blows, throw it open, and still pull this out. That talk-show con man Meredith is not only not qualified to be president, he is a menace to this country. He is evil, sir. He would seal off our borders and turn us inward and on each other. He would divide this country up into little pieces and turn us into a form of the Balkans. He has no unifying vision for this country. He looks out at a crowd of people and he sees different interests, different races, different everything. He is evil, I promise you, he is evil. He must not be the next president of the United States. You are the only one who can stop that from happening. Please, go out there and take him on. Call him evil, call him a menace. Challenge him on that stupid goddamn Take It Back shit!”

Paul L. Greene was shaking his head.

“You are shaking your head,” Brad Lilly said. “Please don’t shake your head. Please, sir. Please!”

“Brad, the decision on who is the next president will be made by the voters. They know all there is to know about Meredith. If they want a talk-show con man to run their government, if they want to turn their country into an island, there is not one thing I can do about it. Attacking him, calling him names on national television tomorrow night, is not going to change anything. He is what he is, but they already know it.”

“But they might … well, get to know more about you, sir.”

“I am not somebody who makes personal attacks on people. That is
not me, that is not the person I am, so it is not the person I want people to know.”

“There is no other way. You take him on or he’s got it.”

“I know that.”

“If you know that, then why … Well, how can you not do something more than what you have done?”

“I do not want to be president that badly, Brad.”

“The issue is the country, sir, not you!”

“Scrub the rehearsal. Why don’t you meet me for breakfast in my suite in the morning?”

Brad Lilly gave Paul L. Greene a kind of salute with his right hand and they said good night.

Greene walked away and out of the room.

Lilly then saw me. “You didn’t hear any of that.”

“Was that a question?”

“No, a statement of fact.”

“It’s too late for that,” I said.

“It’s too late for everything,” he said.

Saturday Night Live

t was after eleven-thirty by the time I finally arrived at Colonial Williamsburg itself and checked into my reserved and guaranteed-late-arrival (I have my Visa receipt) room at the Williamsburg Lodge. If I had been an all-knowing reader of fortunes and futures, that’s where I would have been all evening, of course, hovering mostly around Longsworth D in search of morsels, hints, and signs of what was to come.

What happened in that room and elsewhere among the four panelists that Saturday night is difficult to parse specifically as to how it influenced the final decisions and results. But, if nothing else, that time together clearly helped develop the relationships and set the stage for what was to happen at their pivotal Sunday meeting and thus in the debate itself. Of that, I am certain.

While they ate dinner at the small round table, Henry Ramirez tried a couple of times to get into a discussion of the specific questions they would ask Sunday night. The other three deflected him. They wanted to eat in relative peace. There was time, there was time, Howley said.

So they talked about other things, journalism things, mostly.

Joan asked Howley if Jerry Rhome was really as obsessively nuts about walking as he was reported to be. Yes, indeed, said Howley. But he offered no details and used careful phrasing. Joan told me she suspected Howley had been burned a few times by an innocent remark about Rhome or someone else at the paper coming back to him a few days or weeks later as something very different—and critical. She said she, also the victim of rumors and lousy reporting, very much sympathized with Howley. “Every reporter should be the subject of at least one negative story to see how it feels,” Joan Naylor said to me. “I think journalism schools should require students to write hatchet jobs on each other as part of their training.”

Mike Howley asked Barbara Manning about the rumor that
This Week
was thinking about turning itself into a daily from a weekly to compete head-on with
USA Today.
She said she was stunned and appalled at the thought, which was completely new to her.

Henry Ramirez then opened up a journalistic can of worms that Mike Howley probably could have done without.

“How does your appearing on
NBS This Morning
work?” Henry said to Howley. “You really do swing from both sides. Print and TV. Straight reporting and commentary. I like that and I would like to do that myself someday. How does that work?”

Howley’s face said more than his words. And the message was that of embarrassment, uneasiness. He answered it straight: “I have an arrangement to come on every Wednesday morning through the course of the campaign, and I am on-call, depending on my schedule, to do so on other mornings following a special event or unscheduled news event.”

BOOK: The Last Debate
11.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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