More than 80 million watched the 1980 debate held in Cleveland

(Part II of Three Parts)

By JOHN KEREZY, publisher of EyeonCleveland.com

There almost wasn’t a presidential debate between the two major party candidates in 1980. As those over age 55 will recall, there were three main people running for president that year: incumbent President Jimmy Carter (D), former California Governor Ronald Reagan (R), and Congressman John Anderson (Independent). Reagan, who had almost wrestled the 1976 GOP nod from President Gerald Ford, said he would lead “a great national crusade to make America great again” in his 1980 speech accepting the Republican nomination.

Carter (and his team), trailing in the polls, refused to participate if Anderson was part of the debate. “He (Carter) had dodged a debate with Democratic challenger Sen. Ted Kennedy that year,” recalls Tom Beres, political reporter and editor with WKYC Channel 3 from 1979 to 2016. “Carter balked at participating, claiming (he thought) it was a mistake to promote third parties.”

President Jimmy Carter (left) shakes former Governor Ronald Reagan’s hand at the October 28, 1980, Presidential Debate held in Cleveland. SOURCE: The Cleveland Press Collection at Cleveland State University

Reagan refused to participate without Anderson. So the first official presidential debate in the general election came with John Anderson opposing Reagan in Baltimore on September 21. The League of Women voters presented the debates. Bill Moyers, then with PBS, was the moderator.

Afterward, the candidates and the two parties’ national committees continued to squabble over Anderson’s presence. Both the second (presidential) and third (vice presidential) debates were cancelled.

Finally, Reagan conceded to Carter’s one-on-one demand. “I think Carter (also) got shamed and pressured into taking part in one traditional debate, but managed to exclude Anderson,” Beres recalls. So the last debate of the 1980 campaign took place with only Reagan and Carter, in Cleveland, on Tuesday, October 28, just seven days before the election.

HOW CLEVELAND WAS SELECTED

A combination of factors earned Cleveland a spot in the line-up of cities hosting presidential debates in 1980. It was coming off then-Mayor Dennis Kucinich’s tumultuous two years of leadership, including defaulting on some municipal bonds. There was broad consensus that the city needed measures to restore its tarnished image and reputation. Thomas Vail, publisher and editor of The Plain Dealer (then Ohio’s largest paper), spearheaded the creation of a non-profit board called the New Cleveland Campaign in 1978. A 29-member Board of Trustees, with George Miller as executive director, guided the effort. The New Cleveland Campaign had a national focus, touting Cleveland as a community which solved its problems and with economic strengths in health care, professional and legal services, polymers, and other areas.

Tom Beres

Back then the League of Women Voters (LWV) served as the sponsoring organization for all presidential debates. Cleveland had a strong LWV chapter and excellent leaders in Mildred Madison, president, and Grace Kudukis, public relations director. “Kudukis and Madison were ramrods behind the effort,” Beres recalls.

The Cleveland Press (the daily afternoon paper, which ceased publication in 1982), the Convention & Visitors Bureau, and the Greater Cleveland Growth Association collaborated in advancing Cleveland as a site to the League of Women Voters, the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee. It also helped that the city and civic leaders raised and committed more than $190,000 for expenses associated with the debate. So when the LWV selected sites for the 1980 debates, Cleveland made the list as the fourth and final location. That also turned out to be good fortune, as the second and third debates never happened.

SPOTLIGHT ON NE OHIO

A perennial battleground state in the contest for the presidency, candidates were no strangers to the area. Carter had already visited Ohio four times since his Democratic Party re-nomination, Reagan five times, before the debate.  A throng of more than 1,500 reporters from 400+ news organizations descended on Cleveland in late October to cover to it. Once again, the road to the White House was going through the Buckeye State and specifically through Northeast Ohio.

Beres recalls the hoopla in Cleveland. WKYC-TV was then owned and operated by the NBC Network, so “all the national first teamers came in” for coverage, he says. John Chancellor, then anchor for the NBC Nightly News, was among the many who reported from Cleveland at the event. NBC provided the pool feed for the debate, so its video and images went around the world that night.    

Stouffers Inn on the Square Hotel (now the Renaissance) was where the Reagan camp set up shop for the debate. Carter’s headquarters was at the Bond Court Hotel (where the Westin Hotel Cleveland stands today). The New Cleveland Campaign and Mayor Voinovich feted the press. About 1,200 of them attended a pre-debate cocktail party and ethnic foods reception in the Rotunda at City Hall. The event drew rave reviews. Dan Rather, Jessica Savitch, Frank Reynolds, Barbara Walters, Leslie Stahl, and many other prominent journalists joined Chancellor in Cleveland covering Carter vs. Reagan.

Case Western Reserves University and the Cleveland Clinic, site of Tuesday’s Presidential Debate. See the bottom of this post for details on how you can follow some of the news about this debate yourself.

“This was the in George Voinovich’s first term as Mayor, just after the Kucinich years of chaos and default,” Beres adds. “It was a great chance for Cleveland to get positive attention hosting the event, and a chest-thumping moment of civic pride.”

Clevelanders cherished rubbing elbows with the famous, and some students and staff at Cuyahoga Community College’s Metro Campus had a special opportunity to “see” President Carter. An avid jogger, Carter went to the Metro Campus to go on a three-mile run the morning of the debate.

Tickets to attend in person were highly prized. One of those who witnessed the debate inside Musical Hall that night was Cleveland City Councilman James Rokakis. Just in his third year on Council then, Rokakis went on to a long career as a public servant in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. Today he’s vice president of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. “Security was tough. I had to get to the event about two hours early,” he recalls. “I don’t remember much about the debate honestly because it was hot, the lights made it even hotter and we were in tight seating quarters.”

MOST VIEWERS EVER AT THE TIME

According to Nielsen Media Research, the 80.6 million people who viewed the Carter-Reagan debate in Cleveland comprised the largest TV audience in the history of presidential debates. It remained so until 2016, when 84 million tuned into their television sets and streaming services to watch the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. European Union Television send the NBC pool video to four different continents. Eyes all over the world were on the event in Cleveland that October night.

Inside Music Hall, Rokakis was among less than a thousand people seeing the contest in person. Both political parties allowed a few hundred supporters into the venue. Besides family and close advisers to the candidates, the moderator and media questioners, and a small number of reporters were also inside.

The rest of the reporting throng and local journalists who had received press credentials (including me) were assembled in the huge Public Hall section of Cleveland Public Auditorium, where dozens of rows of tables were set up and several big-screen televisions showed the debate. The Plain Dealer had more than 20 reporters and photographers assigned to cover all aspects of the event in Cleveland. There is a link below to a portable document file (PDF) of the first nine pages of The Plain Dealer’s coverage on October 28, 1980. Some of their reporters who filed stories that day included: Richard G. Zimmerman, Joseph D. Rice, James Neff, Thomas J. Brazaitis, Amos A. Kermisch, William F. Miller, Michael K. Frisby, Alan A.A. Seifullah, Janice Carter, Christine J. Jindra, Judy Sammon, and Michael Ward. Others covering the debate that night included Hall of Fame broadcaster Leon Bibb of WKYC, the first Black anchor of a television newscast in Cleveland.

Howard K. Smith of ABC News, who had presided over the first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1960, also moderated this one. Questioners were Marvin Stone, editor of U.S. News and World Report; Harry Ellis, national correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor; William Hilliard, assistant managing editor of the Portland Oregonian; and Barbara Walters, correspondent, ABC News.

AND THE WINNER WAS…

“There you go again.”

Reagan’s four-word response to one of President Carter’s statements, on Medicare, epitomized the debate that night. Most viewers believed that Carter displayed his knowledge and understanding of complex issues. On the other hand, Reagan’s more home-spun approach to issues seemed to connect better with viewers and voters.

In his closing remarks, Reagan asked this about the election: “I think when you make that decision, it might be well if you would ask yourself, are you better off than you were four years ago?” The question resonated well with the electorate.

“The only thing I really remember is Jimmy Carter talking about his young daughter‘s concerns about nuclear proliferation,” Rokakis recalls. “I remember people in the audience basically groaned at that comment, for reasons we all understood later. I remember leaving that night thinking that he was done.”

So who won the debate? Not surprisingly, opinions varied. The Plain Dealer reported on an ABC-TV call-in survey conducted immediately after the debate. Those phoning the network expressed a preference for Reagan by a two-to-one margin. The newspaper also interviewed seven Clevelanders who had said before the debate they were undecided about their preference. Of the group, three stated they were supporting Carter and one supporting Reagan following the debate.

On election day just a week later, Rokakis’ premonition proved right. Reagan gained 50.7 percent of the popular vote compared to 41 percent for Carter. Reagan captured 44 states and 489 electoral votes. Three years later,  the public learned someone had stolen debate briefing books from Carter’s White House and given them to Reagan’s campaign. The FBI looked into the matter. An ensuing Congressional investigation questioned more than 100 witnesses produced a report totaling nearly 2,500 pages, but no one was charged with a crime.

You can view the entire Carter-Reagan debate by clicking here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXFEh4cdCog

JUDGE TUESDAY NIGHT’S DEBATE FOR YOURSELF

On Tuesday, Donald Trump returns to Cleveland for the first 2020 president debate against former Vice President Joe Biden. It’s familiar territory for him, as many political observers believe that it was at the Republican Party debate in Cleveland in August 2015 where Trump first became recognized as a serious candidate for president.

How do you judge a presidential debate? Eye on Cleveland’s John Kerezy, a long-time high school debate coach, has assembled a one-page guide to help you do just that. You can download it here, save it on your computer or print it out, and use it as a guide when you view or listen to the Biden-Trump Presidential Debate on September 28.

NOTE: Kerezy is an associate professor of media and journalism studies at Cuyahoga Community College, and has also served as a high school speech and debate coach for 12 years. If you are in the media and need a resource for the September 28 debate, contact him at 216-987-5040 or at john.kerezy@tri-c.edu.

FOLLOW ALONG

If you are interested in behind-the-scenes details for Tuesday’s presidential debate in Cleveland, below is a link to an online newsroom which the Cleveland Clinic has established. There are resources available there, including news updates, photos and b-roll footage.

https://newsroom.clevelandclinic.org/2020/09/17/media-resources-and-information-for-sept-29th-presidential-debate/

Sources Used

(Special thanks to Case Western Reserve University for its Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, which became a go-to resource for research on this topic.)

https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/presidential-debate-baltimore-reagan-anderson

https://case.edu/ech/articles/n/new-cleveland-campaign

Q-and-A session with Tom Beres, September 24, 2020

https://newsroom.clevelandclinic.org/2020/09/17/media-resources-and-information-for-sept-29th-presidential-debate/

https://www.debates.org/debate-history/1980-debates/

https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/presidential-debate-cleveland

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_presidential_debates#Since_1976

Emails exchanged with James Rokakis, September 26, 2020

https://www.cleveland.com/politics/2012/10/clevelands_presidential_debate.html

https://www.history.com/news/7-things-you-may-not-know-about-u-s-presidential-debates

https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/presidential-debate-cleveland

https://www.politico.com/story/2009/10/new-book-pins-debategate-on-dem-028317

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