As Americans settle down to watch the presidential candidates debate, they should remember how this tradition made a comeback. Exactly forty years ago, presidential debates reappeared as an American political institution. In the summer of 1976, President Gerald Ford, after fending off Ronald Reagan’s formidable challenge for the Republican nomination, found himself trailing Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter by thirty-three points in the polls. Boldly gambling to close that gap, Ford challenged Carter to debate on national television. The ensuing face-offs renewed the high-stakes political gamesmanship that John Kennedy and Richard Nixon established in 1960 and marked the first time an incumbent president took to the debate stage. Ever since, debates have been a staple of presidential races.
The 1976 debates also created one of the most inexplicable moments in campaign history. In the second debate that fall, devoted to foreign policy, Ford answered a question from panelist Max Frankel by declaring, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.”
The stunning remark flew in the face of history and defied borders that any observer could see on a map. Apparently, Ford refused to recognize Cold War realities that had existed since the end of World War II, when Soviet forces occupied much of Eastern Europe.
The statement also contradicted Ford’s own past. In the war’s Pacific theater, he had fought for the U.S. Navy, witnessing the conflict firsthand and observing the wrenching changes it wrought. Intellectually, he had no reason to make the mistake. He was one of the nation’s best-educated presidents, a University of Michigan and Yale Law School alumnus. As a quarter-century veteran of Congress, a vice president, and president, he was steeped in diplomacy, and in 1975, he ventured behind the Iron Curtain, visiting Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia to show solidarity with those Soviet satellites.
That trip provided one explanation for the gaffe. In a 2003 interview with me, Ford explained that he sensed the vibrant spirit of Eastern Europeans there, even as they strained under the Soviet yoke. “My real feeling,” he said, “was that the Polish people would never accept, over the long haul, Soviet domination.”
Other explanations account for Ford’s misstatement. He was answering a question about the Helsinki Accords, which he considered the crowning diplomatic achievement of his presidency. In 1975, Ford attended the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, where 35 nations signed an agreement pledging to increase the movement of people and information across borders. In his interview with me, Ford called the Helsinki accords the “spark…that brought about the demise of the Soviet Union.”
At the time, though, critics charged that the accords ratified the Iron Curtain, and Ford faced withering criticism that he had conceded too much to the Soviets. Parrying such attacks for more than a year, Ford grew defensive about the accords, and Frankel’s question only provoked him. The reporter rattled off a laundry list of Soviet gains and noted that “we virtually signed, in Helsinki, an agreement that the Russians have dominance in Eastern Europe.” Ford was eager to rebut the charge, but that eagerness led him to overstate his case.
The Ford White House expected Helsinki questions at the debate. Aides crafted responses that the president could deploy, one of them denying “that my policies accept Soviet domination over Eastern Europe….” As Ford rehearsed for the debate, he took careful notes. He jotted down the words “Sonnenfeldt Doctrine,” referring to Assistant Secretary of State Helmut Sonnenfeldt’s argument that the U.S.S.R. had an “organic union” with its satellites, which conservatives and Americans of Eastern European descent stoutly rejected. After noting this doctrine, Ford wrote, “There is none,” underlining those words twice for emphasis.
Ford’s gaffe might have boiled down to a trick that his memory played on him, compounded by the slippery slope of semantics. Always a conscientious student, he likely pored over his handwritten notes as he prepared for the debate, and he might have remembered that key phrase—“There is none”—but embellished it incorrectly by adding the words about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. If he had articulated the sentence his aides had prepared, saying that the “Ford administration does not accept” or “does not concede” Soviet domination of Eastern Europe—as he did in clarifying his remarks to Frankel—his initial response would have passed muster, and debate history would have been kinder to him.
As it was, Ford’s answer generated a media firestorm that sucked oxygen from his campaign. On election day, he lost by two percentage points. He had staged a remarkable comeback; his strategy of using televised debates to overtake Carter almost worked. But his words became one of those defining debate mistakes—like Nixon’s sweaty, haggard appearance in 1960 or Al Gore’s patronizing sighs in 2000—that contributed to defeat.
Despite the misstep, though, Ford’s legacy from the 1976 debates has endured. After Watergate’s traumas and the secrecy shrouding the Nixon administration, Ford touted his White House’s “open, accessible” nature. Bringing debates back became one way to open a window on political campaigns, allowing Americans to view their candidates in an unscripted setting. That process has become a vital part of U.S. politics, and these contests provide moments that define campaigns and sometimes decide elections. Forty years later, let the debates begin again.
Yanek Mieczkowski is the author of Eisenhower’s Sputnik Moment: The Race for Space and World Prestige (2013), Gerald Ford and the Challenges of the 1970s (2005), and The Routledge Historical Atlas of Presidential Elections (2001). He is currently a visiting professor at the University of North Florida.