WASHINGTON -- As the first presidential debate of 2000 approaches, the focus is on Republican nominee George W. Bush, because it can either be an escape route for him out of his current campaign struggles or it can mire him more deeply in them.
The Bush campaign is playing the low-expectations game, identifying Democratic nominee Al Gore as the better and more experienced debater. Indeed, the conventional wisdom holds that the sometimes-flippant Texas governor could do himself in with a conspicuous gaffe, or simply by coming off as less than "presidential."
The peril inherent in presidential debates more than the opportunity was dramatically underscored Sunday night in a fascinating two-hour television documentary on the 40-year history of these high-risk televised events. Narrated by Jim Lehrer, who again will moderate this year's versions, the show featured clips of critical moments in past debates and interviews with the debaters themselves critiquing their performances.
Former President Gerald Ford talked about his infamous claim in the 1976 debate that Poland was not under Soviet domination. His challenger, Jimmy Carter, revisited his comment that he had discussed nuclear deterrence with his young daughter, Amy. Bob Dole rehashed his accusation of "Democrat wars" in his vice-presidential debate the same year with Walter Mondale.
Ronald Reagan, interviewed by Mr. Lehrer before his illness, reviewed his comment that he would not make age an issue against Mr. Mondale in 1984, which Mr. Mondale in his interview acknowledged had cooked his goose. Dan Quayle squirmed through the revisiting of Lloyd Bentsen's putdown that he was "no Jack Kennedy." Michael Dukakis reflected on his bloodless response to a question of what his reaction would be if his wife was raped and murdered. And former President George Bush demonstrated pique that his looking at his wristwatch during the 1992 debate had been made into a big deal.
Of all the spellbinding remembrances by the candidates, none was more notable than Mr. Bush's assessment of the debates, especially in light of his son's early efforts to substitute a pair of free-wheeling talk show venues for carefully formulated events by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates.
Having engaged in six of these confrontations -- five presidential and one vice presidential -- Mr. Bush had a distinct viewpoint on them. "Ugly," he said when Mr. Lehrer asked him what kind of experience it was for him. "I don't like them. Partially, I wasn't too good at them. Secondly, some of it's contrived, show business."
He rebelled against the debate rehearsals he had to endure and "a certain artificiality to it, lack of spontaneity to it," he said, "I just felt uncomfortable about it." He accused female reporters covering his debate with Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 of "clapping" for her, and of questions being planted against him. "Those big-time things," he told Mr. Lehrer, "tension city, Jim."
Of the watch-glancing incident, the senior Bush said: "I wasn't too conscious of it at all. Do I remember it? I took huge hit. ... You look at your watch and they say, 'He has no business running for president. He's bored and he's out of this thing and he's not with it, and we need change.' They took a little incident like that to say that I was, you know, out of it, and they made a huge thing out of that ...
"Now, was I glad when the damn thing was over? Yeah, and maybe that's why I was looking at it -- only 10 more minutes of this crap ... If I had said that then, I'd have done better, but you're on guard. You don't want to make a mistake. You don't want to say anything that's going to offend."
With that kind of parental judgment, it's no wonder that his son tried to duck two of the three tightly structured debates rather than conversational confrontations proposed by the commission. But having lost the "debates on debates," George W. has no option but to submit to all three, remembering his father's "ugly" experiences and demonstrating that he's up to the challenge of "tension city."
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington Bureau. Mr. Germond's latest book is "Fat Man in a Middle Seat -- 40 Years of Covering Politics" (Random House, 1999). Mr. Witcover's latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).