CHRIS MATTHEWS, host: I think the big strategic question is: Will the president go in there and go for the jugular or will he simply go for the draw?
Into the arena. The champ and the challenger match fists in the country's main political event. Neither man has ever lost a debate. One will.
Strategy. Should Kerry attack on Iraq and make Bush play defense? The president keeps painting the rosy scenario.
Tactics. Will Kerry claim `foul' to make Bush look dirty? Could Bush seize the higher ground by admitting mistakes?
Plus my thoughts on how debates can have big consequences. All that and more with a ringside round table on your weekly news show.
Announcer: From Congress to the West Wing, he's been a Washington insider. Now he's one of the capital's top journalists: Chris Matthews.
MATTHEWS: Hi, I'm Chris Matthews, and welcome to the show. Let's go inside.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: NBC News correspondent David Gregory, BBC correspondent
Katty Kay, NBC News correspondent Andrea Mitchell and The Atlantic magazine's James Fallows discuss upcoming presidential debates between George W. Bush and John Kerry
CHRIS MATTHEWS, host:
Katty Kay covers Washington for the British Broadcasting Corporation. David
Gregory is NBC's man at the White House. Andrea Mitchell has covered many
campaigns for NBC News. And James Fallows writes for The Atlantic magazine.
First up, into the arena. Next week, President Bush and Senator Kerry matched
punch-for-punch in the most important debate of their lives. We'll get to
John Kerry's challenge in the second half of our show. George Bush's big job
in the debates: one, appear more decisive than Kerry; two, show that he's
learned from his mistakes; three, use the good old charm.
David, is he confident?
Mr. DAVID GREGORY (White House Correspondent, NBC News): He's very
confident. I think I'd add to that. It's to show that he's decisive, he's a
strong leader, that he's got a vision for where we're going, particularly in
the area of national security--that's the topic of the first debate. And to
remind people why they like him more than they like Kerry. They think that's
a big advantage. That's one of the reasons they agreed to all these debates.
They want Bush out there. They like how he stacks up side-by-side with Kerry.
At least, I think they do.
MATTHEWS: If you have any doubts about President Bush's ability to hammer
home his attacks on Kerry, watch how effective he was at repeating his theme
(Beginning of clips from October 2000)
Former Vice President AL GORE: ...put our prosperity at risk.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: I can't let them continue with fuzzy math.
Man's practicing fuzzy math again.
This man's been disparaging my plan with all this Washington fuzzy math.
It's fuzzy math.
(End of clips)
MATTHEWS: Well, what will it be this time? Can he do it again, that
repetitive punch where he makes his point?
Ms. KATTY KAY (Washington Correspondent, BBC): Well, logically, repeating
something again and again doesn't make it true. But it does have a certain
oratorical effect of making people start to believe you. And the message this
time is going to be, `America is safer because Saddam Hussein is gone.' He
doesn't actually have to explain why. But what it does is, if you repeat it,
it comes across as being very clear and very unambiguous. And that, he hopes,
will say something about his leadership compared to John Kerry.
Mr. GREGORY: I think it's something else, actually. I actually think it's,
when a president says something, he's got to mean it. That's the attack line
against Kerry, which is that Kerry doesn't know where he is.
MATTHEWS: Jim Fallows, you've read all the--you've done all the scouting
report. You've seen all the game fields from earlier debates. How come this
president is always so good at beating expectations?
Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (The Atlantic): Probably because he's played the
expectations game very shrewdly. And until this time, he's gotten away with
it. They're trying again even this time, where Ed Gillespie said that Kerry
is the best debater since Cicero. So, but I think that it's harder for an
incumbent president to do this, and I think that now the emphasis is coming in
that he actually has won all the previous debates.
MATTHEWS: Your bet.
Ms. ANDREA MITCHELL (NBC News): Well, my bet is that he has kept the
expectations so low that it's almost impossible for him to lose the
expectations. And also, likability. I think that is the key factor here,
because as long as he can try to sell Iraq as part of the war on terror and as
long as Kerry can't make--can't disconnect that, then Bush could easily win
MATTHEWS: I think that is the issue: Can he make it all one piece? `I'm a
good man defending this country against terrorism,' or, `I went off on an
adventure in Iraq I shouldn't have.' That's the issue. Let's take a look at
what you just said there, Andrea, about his ability to deflect a tough one.
Here he is with his easy manner.
(Beginning of clip from October 1994)
PAUL: Isn't it a little disingenuous to say--to portray yourself as an
Pres. BUSH: Well, I've never held office, Paul. I mean, I'm only telling
you the way the facts are. I'm not proud of the fact that I got whipped in
'78. I did come in second in a two-man race.
(End of clip)
MATTHEWS: Well, that's something, isn't it? That ability to just sort of
deflect a tough shot.
Mr. GREGORY: But this is what he does all the time. I mean, he practices
this with reporters, with foreign leaders, whatever. His sense of humor is
about the quick repartee, the quick rejoinder. And remember what he did to
Gore in 2000, where Gore kind of stepped up to him, and he just gave him that
Mr. GREGORY: ...as if to say, `What are you doing?' That's what he knows how
to do instinctively. So if people think that he's not smart and he doesn't
know how to react, they'll find out.
MATTHEWS: And you think that towel-snapping that he does so well...
Mr. GREGORY: You bet. That's exactly...
MATTHEWS: ...will work in an issue of war and peace.
Mr. GREGORY: I think it matters in an issue of war and peace because his
attack lines are about something that is really substantive, which is
constancy, principle, leadership.
MATTHEWS: That self-deprecating, of course, he's very good at that.
Mr. GREGORY: Right.
MATTHEWS: But will he, Andrea, actually admit he made a mistake of substance
during these debates?
Ms. MITCHELL: I don't think he will. Because part of the package is that,
`I am the president. I am the leader. I know best. This guy is, you know,
off there in the Senate, and he's had all these different positions to
flip-flop.' I mean, this is the way the Bush people would frame it. The other
thing that Bush has done very well, as we saw in that clip, is, son of a
president, brought up in privilege, yet he has so adapted to the Texas thing.
Ms. MITCHELL: He's campaigning in shirt-sleeves...
Mr. GREGORY: Right.
Ms. MITCHELL: ...with sweat pouring off of him. The other guy is in a
jacket, looks like...
Ms. MITCHELL: ...he just stepped out of Gentleman's Quarterly.
MATTHEWS: He's the buckaroo. Jim...
Ms. KAY: He's going around and...
MATTHEWS: I'm sorry.
Jim, I just thought about--will he--I want everybody to answer this question.
You have already answered it.
Will he admit he's made a mistake in any context here?
Mr. FALLOWS: I think probably not. I mean, that would be out of character
of what he's done for the last six or eight months on the campaign. It's
interesting what happened in that Texas clip right after what we saw. Because
he had this self-deprecating touch, and then he said, `But the main point is.'
He went back to his main themes. And he'll do that, too. If anything comes
up awkward, he'll deal with it and then, `We're safe.'
Ms. KAY: I think the decision has been made in the White House throughout
his administration that they're not going to admit to mistakes because they
don't want to appear ambiguous. And it plays into this image that he has of a
MATTHEWS: And also...
Ms. KAY: He's not reversing his position, not saying that you've made any
MATTHEWS: I'm going to be fair here. If he does admit a mistake, some of his
enemy newspapers will lead with that the next day. `The president admits
mistakes' as the lead.
Mr. GREGORY: There's no way he's going to admit a mistake, because he hasn't
done it in the past, and he's had his opportunities. And he's using the idea
of even questioning policy in this campaign as a way of emboldening the enemy.
That's what he's trying to use against Kerry.
MATTHEWS: Let's look at him in a very sticky situation. Here's a tricky one
for the president. The chance that the moderator, Jim Lehrer in the first
debate, or Kerry himself, asks him to say how he feels, the president feels,
about Kerry's Vietnam service. Watch this, in a similar situation back in
2000 with John McCain and those rough primaries back in 2000.
(Beginning of clip from February 2000)
Senator JOHN McCAIN: Now, I don't know how--if you can understand this,
George, but that really hurts.
Pres. BUSH: Yeah, I can.
Sen. McCAIN: That really hurts.
I think you should.
Pres. BUSH: Yeah. Yeah. John, I believe that you served our country nobly,
and I've said it over and over again. That man wasn't speaking for me. He
may have a dispute with you...
Sen McCAIN: You're a...
Pres. BUSH: Let me finish, please. Please.
Sen McCAIN: He's listed as your...
Pres. BUSH: Let me finish. Let me finish.
Mr. LARRY KING: All right, let him finish.
Pres. BUSH: If you're going to be--hold me responsible for what people for
me say, I'm going to do the same for you.
(End of clip)
MATTHEWS: Will he do that this time, on the Swift Boats?
Ms. MITCHELL: That's going to be the big drama here. That--we just saw the
worst moment George Bush has had his entire debating career. And it went on
for that, where McCain was dressing him down. The question for Kerry is, can
he find some way to raise this same issue McCain was doing by the difference
in their wartime past? And I just don't know how Kerry will do it, but that's
MATTHEWS: Can he--in other words, in a heated moment, can the president use
his greatest gift, which you call his charm, his towel-snapping ability? Or
does that seem whimsical?
Mr. GREGORY: No, let me tell you what the other side of it is.
MATTHEWS: Yeah, sure.
Mr. GREGORY: It's a very basic point. The president gets mad. You can make
him mad. If you interrupt him, you can make him mad.
MATTHEWS: Is he good?
Mr. GREGORY: I know it firsthand.
MATTHEWS: Is he good mad?
Mr. GREGORY: No, he's not good. No. Because he gets frustrated and he gets
backed up, and he shows that he's angry. And I don't think he wants to do it.
I think he did a good job avoiding that with Gore, but he can get mad.
Ms. MITCHELL: Well, in that moment that we just showed, it was pretty awful
when you think about it. Here is George Bush, who didn't serve, in this
patronizing way praising John McCain's service. You know, John McCain, a
prisoner of war?
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you a top question, the big strategic question. You,
Jim, are the best scouting reporter, we start with here. Bush is ahead in the
polls. Will he play it safe or go for the jugular and say something to John
Kerry like, `You even voted against the first Iraq war when we had the Arab
League behind us and every European country. You're against fighting for this
country. You're against fighting this country.'
Mr. FALLOWS: I think they're smart enough to see the advantages of playing
it safe, playing defense. He is ahead and he can just place the same
arguments he did in the convention, that we are safer.
MATTHEWS: No go for the jugular?
Mr. FALLOWS: I don't think so.
MATTHEWS: Andrea, will he go for the jugular?
Ms. MITCHELL: I think he will go for the jugular. But I just misspoke. He
didn't serve in Vietnam, is what I meant to say. He, of course, served in the
MATTHEWS: Yeah. OK, he goes for the jugular, you say. We have a split so
far. Will he go for the jugular, Katty?
Ms. KAY: No, I don't think he will.
MATTHEWS: Three say he won't.
Ms. KAY: I think when they say that they don't need to go for the jugular, I
think they really do mean that.
Mr. FALLOWS: Two say he won't.
MATTHEWS: Two say he won't.
Ms. KAY: He just has to come out OK.
MATTHEWS: Is this going to be--do you think he'll go for the jugular and play
Mr. GREGORY: Yeah, he will. If he gets his shot, he'll do it.
Ms. MITCHELL: He'll take it.
MATTHEWS: Very cagey here. Two to two, he'll go for the jugular.
I'll be right back with John Kerry's tremendous challenges. It's his turn
next time. When he debates the president, what's he got to do? Plus, the
power of the 90-minute debate to determine the direction of this country.
Stick with me.
Announcer: THE CHRIS MATTHEWS SHOW is brought to you by...
MATTHEWS: How does John Kerry bury George Bush in the debates? Stick with
MATTHEWS: Welcome back.
Let's talk about John Kerry's big job this week. One, present a clear
alternative to Iraq in this first debate; two, raise the discomfort level with
four more years of Bush; and three, bond with the audience. All three pretty
tough. This guy, John Kerry, you know his history. Was quite a debater as a
Mr. FALLOWS: He was. He has all the attributes of the classic debate
champion. He won all the prizes at St. Paul's school and then Yale. But
more importantly, he has the other kind of debating skill in a political
debate, being able to kind of gut the other guy. And that's a more
prosecutorial kind of skill. It's different, and he's shown that he can do
that, especially with William Weld.
MATTHEWS: Here's Kerry. He needs to make the point this time in this first
debate about Iraq. Can he go on the offensive as he did in that Senate debate
with Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld back in '96?
(Beginning of clip from October 1996)
Senator JOHN KERRY: Now, Governor, let me say something to you. That's the
last time I want to hear you say in this campaign that I am in favor of
putting money, cash, in the hands of a drug addict. You know it's not true.
Governor WILLIAM WELD: It's quite true.
Sen. KERRY: I specifically have opposed cash payments. They go to a third
party, Governor, and only...
Unidentified Man: Governor Weld's turn.
Sen. KERRY: I just want to answer this question.
(End of clip)
MATTHEWS: Well--I mean--let me go to Andrea. Can he do that again?
Ms. MITCHELL: I think you can't do that to a sitting president. I just
MATTHEWS: You can't brow-beat him?
Ms. MITCHELL: No, you can't do that. What his challenge is to be more
likeable, to soften those edges, to show that he can be consistent...
Ms. MITCHELL: ...and also, he's got to punch through with something quick.
His answers have got to be topic sentence and forget all of these
Ms. KAY: He mustn't start adding phrases. But the other thing is that if he
starts going for the jugular on Iraq, which is his big issue, he's going to
open himself up to the whole flip-flop argument again. If he says, as did
there, `I never want to hear you say again that my position on Iraq was X,' he
can't say that to someone, because...
MATTHEWS: I think you're wrong, Katty. Well, I don't know. Does anybody
disagree with her? Because I think he has to do it.
Mr. GREGORY: I--no, I agree. And I think his real challenges on Iraq are a
couple things. He's got to have a linear argument that actually says, `I did
X to Y, to Z, and this is how they all fit.' And he's got to do it in a way
that really puts the onus on Bush. He's got to say, `For a second, forget
about me. Has this man proved his case?'
MATTHEWS: OK. Let me ask you, can he replicate just what we saw? Can he
say, `Jim, a week ago the vice president--in fact, it was you, Mr. President,
questioned my patriotism. I resent that. Do you think I wasn't a patriot
when I fought for this country?' Do you think he might do that?
Mr. FALLOWS: He might do that, but that will be second-tier. The first tier
will be make the case about Iraq. And his case can be as simple as, `We
should be fighting the Cold War and we're fighting the Vietnam War.' And he
can lay out those differences.
Ms. MITCHELL: Hillary Clinton, in a campaign phone call, a conference call
with a bunch of us this week, said, `Look, we are spending more in Iraq in
four days than we spend to protect our ports in four years.' Now, that is
punchy, delivered. He's got to make that kind of point.
Ms. KAY: But did you hear John Kerry try to make that argument? John Kerry
tried to make the same argument Friday when he laid out his case for the
global war on terrorism, and he tried to say that point about the ports. By
the time he had added so many phrases in his argument, you got to the end of
the sentence and you forgot what he said.
Ms. MITCHELL: At least it was very well-written.
Ms. KAY: He has to be...
MATTHEWS: Hey, by the way, the rules they've agreed on, this long contract,
sets very short time limits. I think people think it's very pro-Bush, the
time rules, because Kerry can't do what everybody's saying.
Look, if President Bush does go on the offense against Kerry, how will the
senator react? Look at how Kerry handled Swift Boat vet John O'Neil himself
back in his skinner days, back in '71 on "The Dick Cavett Show."
(Beginning of clip from "The Dick Cavett Show")
Mr. JOHN O'NEIL: This man has attempted the murder of the reputations of two
and a half million of us, including the 55,000 dead in Vietnam, and he will
never be brought to justice.
Mr. DICK CAVETT: Now John Kerry.
Sen. KERRY: Wow! Well, there's so many things, really, to be said, and it's
hard to find a place to start after a barrage like that.
(End of clip)
MATTHEWS: Will that subtle rejoinder work on a presidential debate?
Ms. KAY: I mean, that's John Kerry's problem, is that if he `um's and `er's,
if he adds all the extra phrases that we've been talking about, he doesn't
give a very clear message. We have to get to the end of this knowing where
George Bush will take us over the next four years on Iraq, where John Kerry
will take us over the next four years on Iraq, and he has to be clear.
Clarity is king in this debate.
MATTHEWS: I agree.
Ms. KAY: And if he can't be clear, by adding extra sentences, by going off
on tangents, then he's got a very big problem.
MATTHEWS: We have to know where John Kerry stands, because we know where the
president stands. Right?
Mr. GREGORY: Well...
Ms. KAY: Because the president keeps repeating and his arguments are
Mr. FALLOWS: Yeah, these points are obvious to Kerry people, too, and I'm
sure that's what they're working on right now. And at his best in these
debates, he has a kind of languorous power where he seems like a prosecutor
again. Not rushed, he's not huffy and puffy, but he sort of cuts right in.
And so I think that's what they're working on right now.
Ms. KAY: But how does a prosecutor...
MATTHEWS: Will he say, `There you go again, Mr. President'?
Mr. FALLOWS: Something like that. Something like that.
MATTHEWS: All right.
Ms. KAY: The question is going to be: How does the prosecutor match up
against the nice guy? They're both good debaters.
Mr. GREGORY: Can I just make one point about likability, authenticity?
Ms. KAY: They're both skilled.
MATTHEWS: Well, yeah, in fact, let's bring up our next shot here. We're
going to show a picture along those lines. But tell me about it.
Mr. GREGORY: You know, I think one of the problems that Al Gore had is that
he appeared not to be comfortable in his own skin, and George Bush does.
MATTHEWS: How about John Kerry?
Mr. GREGORY: And if John Kerry--I think John Kerry has some...
MATTHEWS: Well, this will not give you confidence in that regard.
Mr. GREGORY: All right.
MATTHEWS: Here he is at a disadvantage to the president when it comes to
using the light touch. Here's one of the best Kerry lines, best Kerry uses of
humor we've been able to find in all of his debates.
(Beginning of clip from September 16, 1996)
Sen. KERRY: Governor, as I listen to you, it's really extraordinary. You
talk out of both sides of your mouth more than the Budweiser frogs. It's the
most amazing thing I've ever seen in my life.
Gov. WELD: You must have stayed up late making up all those lines.
Sen. KERRY: I'm surprised you want to talk about Medicare outside of a
confessional, to be truthful with you.
(End of clip)
MATTHEWS: He didn't trust the first joke. He fumbled it. He stepped on it.
Then he tried another joke because the first one didn't work. Doesn't have
much confidence in this debate.
Mr. FALLOWS: He doesn't have to win the joke contest here. What he has to
show, that he's calm and clear. And if he's clear about, especially, his Iraq
program--we're doing one thing...
MATTHEWS: Would you...
Mr. FALLOWS: OK.
MATTHEWS: ...advise him not to try to be funny and take this dead serious?
Mr. FALLOWS: Yes. Yeah, I think that doesn't work.
MATTHEWS: Does everybody agree, stay on a tough plane?
Ms. KAY: And the Democrats already...
MATTHEWS: You think he should try to be light?
Mr. GREGORY: I mean, I think you have to be natural. You can't go in and
MATTHEWS: Let's assume there is no natural for John Kerry.
Mr. GREGORY: Yeah, if it's not natural...
MATTHEWS: Let's assume he has to put it together.
Mr. GREGORY: I don't think you ought to--it's very hard to try to be funny.
MATTHEWS: Right, so it's better to be serious? It's easier?
Mr. GREGORY: If that's what you are, yes.
Ms. MITCHELL: And especially when you're talking about war, peace and...
Ms. KAY: And the Democrats are preparing, though. They're...
MATTHEWS: Katty, is he better off just being a dead-serious guy since we're
talking about war and peace here?
Ms. KAY: I think he's better off--exactly what you said--being himself. The
Democrats are already saying these are serious times for a serious person.
They're laying the way for the fact that he doesn't have to be that funny, and
I think they're right.
MATTHEWS: I agree. He's not funny. Don't try to be funny.
Anyway, before we get a break, let's get to the bottom line with the MATTHEWS
METER. We asked 12 of our regulars, who won this week? Well, this week our
group narrowly gives it to Kerry. So in our running tally sheet, that's two
for Bush. There it is, one for Kerry. The first debate will most likely
decide next week's winner, so we asked our regulars, who will jump up in the
polls after Thursday night's debate? Big surprise here. Seven, the majority,
say Kerry will win. Five said Bush will win.
Katty, tell me something I don't know.
Ms. KAY: The joke--well, I think it passes for a joke in the vice
president's office at the moment--is, at the White House when they agreed to
have the three debates, should have said, `We also demand a Cheney-Kerry
debate.' When I said, well, how about then a Bush-Edwards debate, they didn't
think that was very funny.
MATTHEWS: Clever rejoinder. An excellent towel-snapper, as we've been saying
Mr. GREGORY: Yeah.
MATTHEWS: Go ahead.
Mr. GREGORY: Speaking of debates, Judd Gregg...
Mr. GREGORY: ...the senator, is the one who is George Bush's sparring
partner. The very same from 2000. They originally thought about Bill Weld.
And Bill Weld has been in the loop, I'm told. But it's Judd Gregg who Bush
MATTHEWS: Is he good, Judd Gregg?
Mr. GREGORY: Yeah, they think he...
MATTHEWS: Is he a good John Kerry?
Mr. GREGORY: Well, yes, and they think he did a great floor. And Bush
trusts him. Probably trusts him enough to really let him get in his face to
make him mad.
MATTHEWS: You're a very tall man, David Gregory, as everyone can see. Why
did the president not ask for a riser in the debate negotiations to equalize
Mr. GREGORY: I'm a little confused about that. I was recently under the
impression that there might be some kind of pitcher's mound behind them. I
don't know the answer to that.
MATTHEWS: OK. Andrea:
Ms. MITCHELL: The real fight that's going on in the Kerry campaign behind
the scenes has more to do with Dick Holbrook against Joe Biden as to who...
MATTHEWS: For secretary of state.
Ms. MITCHELL: ...and who can get the candidates here. So each is trying to
position--out-position the other.
MATTHEWS: Who is Philadelphia rooting for in this one? Biden, I bet.
Ms. MITCHELL: You bet.
MATTHEWS: He's the third senator from Pennsylvania.
Ms. MITCHELL: Exactly.
MATTHEWS: Jim Fallows:
Mr. FALLOWS: The next important shoe drop in the battle between the Bush
administration and a lot of its national security establishment is this report
from the Defense Science Board saying there simply aren't enough soldiers, you
know, for Iraq and the entire worldwide commitment. That's going to be an
MATTHEWS: And that really conforms to all the intelligence estimates we're
Mr. FALLOWS: Yeah, it's like the CIA report.
MATTHEWS: ...all the critiques from Jack Mirthen and that part of the world.
Mr. FALLOWS: Yeah.
Ms. MITCHELL: It came up at the Armed Services Committee this week, and they
really didn't have an answer.
Mr. FALLOWS: There's going to be a pressure to get this report out.
MATTHEWS: Well, a lot of bad things are done after elections.
Let me ask you all, does anybody have a real hunch for the scenario of this
debate? My hunch is Kerry will go for it. That he has to really be...
Ms. MITCHELL: He's got to. This is...
MATTHEWS: ...he has to hit the guy hard and he has to take a chance on being
very tough on Iraq. Andrea:
Ms. MITCHELL: Well, absolutely, because he, first of all, didn't get the
convention bounce he wanted, and then Bush had such a late convention that he
got some polling help very post-Labor Day. And this is really the last chance
for Kerry to even the playing field and go ahead.
Mr. FALLOWS: The timing is ideal for him because, for the last week, he's
finally been making a stink about Iraq. So we have a debate about this
subject right at this time when he's beginning to ramp up, so he has to go.
Ms. KAY: And if he can separate the president's optimistic scenario that's
been laid out all this week with the reality that's happening on the ground in
Iraq, then I think that...
MATTHEWS: Is he ready for a hard charge, the president? Right at him? Right
at his jugular?
Mr. GREGORY: Oh, absolutely.
MATTHEWS: And how will he deflect it?
Mr. GREGORY: I think the way he's been deflecting it for the past several
weeks, which is, `Which John Kerry is coming at me today?'
MATTHEWS: Ooh, that's sarcastic.
Anyway, thanks to our great round table. You could say, this one. Katty Kay,
David Gregory, Andrea Mitchell and Jim Fallows. I'll be right back with how
debates decide sometimes the most important questions for our country.
MATTHEWS: My own thoughts on the huge impact of presidential debates. Stick
MATTHEWS: Closed-captioning provided by...
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: 1960 debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy
affecting Asian foreign policy
CHRIS MATTHEWS, host:
A funny thing happened during those great debates between John F. Kennedy and
Richard Nixon, and it took place right here in this room where we do our show
each week. It was a few hours before broadcast. A young NBC page named John
Harder walked in here and noticed something unusual. It was as cold as a meat
locker. The Nixon people, determined to keep the sweat so prominent on their
candidate in the first debate from returning in the second, had turned the
temperature down as low as it would go. Better to have icicles hanging on
Nixon's lip than another Niagara. What the young NBC page witnessed is the
stuff of electoral legend. Bobby Kennedy, the candidate's brother, strolled
in here, felt the polar air and went racing to the control room, where he
demand that the room be warmed up to normal.
A more deadly game played out here in this room that evening of October 7th,
1960: Which candidate would fight the communists for every inch of Asia? A
week before, Senator Kennedy had told David Brinkley that the United States
should not defend a pair of small offshore islands if the Chinese government
tried grabbing them. Nixon saw his chance:
Former President RICHARD NIXON: (From October 1960) The question is not these
two little pieces of real estate. They are unimportant. It isn't the few
people who live on them. They are not too important. It's the principle
involved. And I will hope that Senator Kennedy will change his mind if he
should be elected.
MATTHEWS: Nixon was daring Kennedy to either make a hard commitment to fight
the communists in Asia or get destroyed politically. That's how foreign
policy gets made. Rather than appear weak, Kennedy, too, would make his stand
in Asia. By the time of his death in Dallas, 18,000 US advisers were in
Indochina. Without the United States, Senator Kennedy said that last morning
of his life, South Vietnam would collapse overnight. The man who had won the
1960 debate was captured, rightly or wrongly, by the loser's argument.
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Sign-off: The Chris Matthews Show
CHRIS MATTHEWS, host:
That's the show. Thanks for watching. See you here next week.