The first Presidential debate between Bush & Gore

Written: 11 March, 2000

JIM LEHRER: Good evening, and welcome to the first Presidential debate of the year 2000 Presidential election, taking place at the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. [cheers in audience] I'm Jim Lehrer, host of The News-Hour on PBS, and I will be moderating tonight's debate between Democratic candidate Al Gore, Vice-President of the United States...

[camera shot of Gore smiling in a somewhat frozen manner at his podium]

LEHRER: ...and the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, the Governor of Texas.

[camera shot of Bush looking bored at his podium, waiting for this thing to get over with...]

LEHRER: The format of tonight's debate is as follows. A question will be asked by one of the members of the press here tonight, directed toward one of the candidates. The candidate will have exactly two minutes to respond to the question, at the end of which time a little red light will come on and his opponent will have one minute to respond to the candidate's response, and then the little red light will come on again, and the other candidate will have 30 seconds to respond to that response to his original response. If one of the candidates keeps talking after the little red light comes on, he will forfeit his right to that final 30 second comeback. No question is off-limits. I will remind the audience that there must be no applause, cheers, laughter, or other form of response to any comments by anything said here on this stage. I will now introduce the panel of reporters asking the questions of the candidates for tonight's debate...

[camera shot of Bernard Shaw staring solemnly into camera]

LEHRER: The first questioner will be Bernard Shaw, anchor of CNN.

[camera shot of Charlie Rose, lips puckered like he just ate a prune, shuffling some papers in front of him]

LEHRER: The second questioner is Charlie Rose, host of the Emmy award winning "Charlie Rose Show" on PBS...

[camera shot of Larry King, shoulders hunched, leaning into a microphone in front of him]

LEHRER: And finally, Larry King, host of CNN's Larry King Live.

LARRY KING: Hiya, folks!

LEHRER: We now begin tonight's debate with the first question, posed by Bernard Shaw. Before the program, we had the two candidates flip a coin to decide which of the two would go first tonight. Governor Bush won the coin toss, but upon learning that Bernie would be asking the first question, the Governor graciously allowed Vice-President Gore to go first.

[camera shot of Bush beaming like an angel]

BERNARD SHAW: Mr. Vice-President. During this campaign, you have criticized the Governor for his use of the death penalty in Texas. Let me pose the following hypothetical question. Suppose that your wife Tipper was kidnapped by a dangerous armed psychopath and her whereabouts were unknown for several days. Your family would not know where she was, and neither would the police. Every night you'd go to bed at night and feel an empty space on the other side where your wife once used to sleep...

[camera shot of white-faced Gore, sweat forming on brow]

BERNARD SHAW:...and then, after several days, the police find the body of your wife lying by the side of the road. Her body has been mutilated almost beyond recognition, exhibiting signs of unspeakable torture and degradation. Her body has, in fact, been decapitated, and her maggot-infested skull used for necrophiliac purposes. Swatiskas are carved into her flesh, along with brutal racial epithets. The police find her killer, and he is found guilty of the crime. It turns out that the perpetrator of this obscene crime is none other than the current occupant of the White House, Bill Clinton, who it turns out is a crazed schizophrenic personally responsible for several unsolved murders in the Washington, D.C. area. I ask you, sir: Would you support the death penalty for the crime?

[shot of Gore with eyes wide in horror]

GORE: Well, really, Bernie, that is quite a question. I would have to say that in that circumstance, under the conditions which you described, I have to say that I would support the death penalty in that case. But goodness, Bernie, that is really a... sick scenario that you have presented here tonight. I think that the time may have come for you to seek professional help in this area -- in all seriousness. I'm being quite serious here, no kidding... No kidding around. You are ...Well, I don't want to use the word "twisted," Bernie, but I think that... perhaps it is something that you ought to have checked out. I say that not as a candidate for the Presidency, but as a concerned citizen. As for Governor Bush, I would simply acknowledge that the executions in his state of Texas have caused some controversy, as we all know, and that does cause me grave concern. I don't question his actions per se, but I do question his judgement.

LEHRER: Governor Bush?

BUSH: I like this. [he chuckles] I like this. It's fine if his wife is involved. But then he critcizes me when I use the death penalty to keep the crazies off the street, keep them from hurting the rest of us. I'll tell you this... I'll tell you this... Clinton has committed crimes right now and the Vice-President has looked the other way. He's looked the other way. I'm talking real life, not a hypothetical. Real life.

GORE: Well, as far as I know, President Clinton is not responsible for murdering anyone, although your friend and supporter Jerry Falwell has made that allegation, and it's a disgusting and false allegation, and it should be repudiated.

BUSH: I didn't say that. I didn't say murder.

LEHRER: Charlie Rose will now ask a question of Governor Bush.

BUSH: Can't wait.

CHARLIE ROSE: Governor... Governor Bush. [long pause, Charlie tries to formulate a question] This thing, the Presidency. [pause] It's obviously an awesome responsibility...

BUSH: That's right.

ROSE: So that...

BUSH: That's why I'm the right man for the job.

ROSE: [pause] Let's speak to that. The matter of ...who...the right man is. Some commentators have suggested that your campaign is an attempt to "end the Clinton era." In fact, I think that you yourself have used that description...

BUSH: I have. We got to end it.

ROSE: it...the...[long pause]...I don't want to put words in your mouth...


ROSE: ...but the word "Revenge" has been used by some commentators. That this campaign is about revenge... Revenge on the Clintons for having defeated your father in 1992. That this is your way of avenging your father's honor. Is that a fair assessment, or is it... is it... [long, long agonizing pause]

BUSH: It's not revenge. It's about restoring honor to the White House. It's about bringing integrity back to the Presidency. And I'm the man for that job. My father was a good man. He's a good man.

[audience sympathy applause]

BUSH: I'm a good man, too. And that's what the country is looking for.

CHARLIE ROSE: Then by inference may we assume that you are saying that the Vice-President... is ...not a good man, or...

BUSH: He's the wrong man. We need to end the Clinton era, and he's part of that era, a big part. You know, I'm not the one who called Bill Clinton the greatest President ever, that was Al Gore who did that. He did that. I don't think that we ought to elect someone President who thinks that Bill Clinton was the best President ever. That's not what we want to teach our children.

CHARLIE ROSE: So, it's not revenge?

BUSH: No, I just said it wasn't.

CHARLIE ROSE: So...[long pause, closes his eyes, plays with his pencil]

BUSH: So is that the question?

CHARLIE ROSE: [wide grin on face] I'm just trying to get to... the heart of this campaign, the essential ingredient, if you will...of this ...thing...which we call a Presidential campaign. And what motivates individual to take that leap...and... Let me ask you this: is there something there that has to be present, some fundamental element, for those who feel called to pursue the Presidency... is it something that we see in Macbeth, for example. That undefinable quality... that desire to govern...over a nation of Willy Lomans...or... or...

JIM LEHRER: I'm sorry, Governor Bush's time, has expired. Vice-President Gore may now have a one minute response.

GORE: Thank you, Jim. I just want to say that I agree with Charlie Rose completely that those who pursue high office should be persons of complexity and at the same time nobility, who rise above the normal offices of everyday humanity and yet remain firmly rooted with the lives over whom they govern. It has been my privilege to serve in that capacity for the past eight years as your Vice-President, and I humbly but determinedly ask for the vote of everyone in this room, and everyone hearing me tonight, for the privilege of serving as your President as well.

BUSH: Is it over? That sounded like a closing statement to me. You know, that little red light was on for awhile just now and he kept reading off the statement. But anyway, I just want to say that I know why the Vice-President is trying to distance himself from Clinton now, because the people don't want another Bill Clinton for the next four years. That's why...

JIM LEHRER: I'm sorry, Governor, your time has expired. Our next question is from Larry King.

LARRY KING: Hello, folks. I hope everyone's having a good time tonight. I think I'm asking the next question of Gore, is that right?

[off-camera comment from Lehrer]

LARRY KING: Heeheeheehee. Hello, Mr. Vice-President, good to see ya again.

GORE: [smiling] It's good seeing you, Larry!

LARRY KING: Tell me, huh, this choice of Vice-Presidential nominee that you announced at the convention...Wow, that really caused some talk! A lot of people figured you might choose Bill Bradley, or Bob Kerry, or somebody along those lines. But then, you went and picked the former Surgeon General, Jocelyn Elders, to be your running mate. Some folks are saying that was a bad choice. What's goin' on here, huh?

GORE: Well, I'll tell you, Larry, it was a difficult choice. I had narrowed down my choices to two people, Bob Kerry, whom you've mentioned, and former Georgia senator, Sam Nunn. I thought that both men would bring to the campaign the same kind of integrity that some voters saw in Governor Bush's old opponent, John McCain. I very much want to connect with those McCain voters, and I know that John McCain and I agree on many issues, such as the influence of Pat Robertson and dirty campaign tricks in the Bush campaign. But, to your question -- I chose Jocelyn Elders when I heard that Governor Bush had chosen a woman, Elizabeth Dole, to be his running mate. I thought that was a fine idea, and determined to have a woman be my Vice-Presidential candidate as well, but also someone with military experience to appeal to McCain voters. An advisor pointed out to me that both Sam Nunn and Bob Kerry were white males and therefore I could not in good conscience choose them as Vice-Presidential candidates, when it would mean that a woman somewhere was being deprived that honor. I looked for a name that said "military" and my good friend, the Rev. Al Sharpton, reminded me that Jocelyn Elders had once been Surgeon General. She went even one better than Mrs. Dole by being black as well. I know that she will make a fine Vice-President that all Americans can be proud of -- a Vice-President that looks like America.

BUSH: You know, that red light has been on for the past 5 minutes at least...

LARRY KING: But let me ask you, Mr. Vice-President...

BUSH: Hey, I thought I get a response time...

LARRY KING: Heeheeheeheee. Hey, we'll get to you, Governor, don't worry. We'll fit you in on the other side of the break. But lemme ask you, Mr. Vice-President, some people are saying "Hey, this is the lady that thought kids should be taught how to you-know-what in school." What do you say to that?

GORE: I think that our children should be better educated, and the more that they are taught, the better. I want to improve our nation's schools...

LARRY KING: Yeah, but you want them learning you know what?

GORE: [confused] You know what what?

LARRY KING: You know, masturbation. Hey, she said it, not me. Governor Bush, what's your take on all this?

BUSH: I think it's a mistake. A big mistake.

LARRY KING: You don't think she said it?

BUSH: Oh no, I think she said it, I'm saying that it's a mistake that he would choose someone like that as his Vice-Presidential choice. It's ridiculous.

LARRY KING: So, you ever done it, Governor?

BUSH: Have I done what?

LARRY KING: You know. The masturbation business.

BUSH: I...I don't have to answer a question like that. I'm not going to play that game. Because it's degrading.

LARRY KING: The public wants to know... They don't have the right?

BUSH: The public doesn't want to know. I can tell you, I've visited nearly every state in this union during this campaign, and not once has anyone ever even asked me about that subject. Not once. And frankly I am appalled that you would even ask something like that in this serious forum.

LARRY KING: Hey, they might not ask somebody about it, but they might be thinking it. Ya never know.

JIM LEHRER: The Vice-President's 30-second response will be forfeited on this question because he went over last time. Our next question is from Bernard Shaw, posed to Governor Bush.

BERNARD SHAW: Governor Bush, during the Republican primaries, you said that your favorite philosopher was Jesus Christ. Jesus has been quoted as saying that, and I quote, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Unquote. Governor, during this campaign, you have harshly criticized the Vice-President for engaging in "class warfare" by demanding more of the rich than of the poor. My question to you, Governor, is whether you think Jesus was also engaging in class warfare.

BUSH: No. Period.

BERNARD SHAW: Is that the extent of your response, Governor?

BUSH: Yeah, that about covers it. You know, we got to stop hating one another in this country. I believe that. And that's what Jesus taught and that's what I'm for. Jesus didn't say that a rich person couldn't get into Heaven, he just said it's hard. It is, it's hard. Because a rich person may get comfortable, lost in materialism, thinking that's all there is to life. There's more to life than money. You know, we got a pretty good economy right now, thanks to the Republican Congress, and things may look pretty good, but we're hurting inside. I think that there is too much immorality today, and it's taken for granted. I want to preserve the idea of marriage and family, not destroy it. I want to be a President that Americans can be proud of, not one that they are ashamed of. You know, there ain't too many parents naming their kids "Bill Clinton."

JIM LEHRER: Vice-President Gore, your response?

GORE: Thank you, Jim. I do want to say that I believe there is a need for spiritual renewal in this great land of ours, and that we need to follow the wise words that "Man, and woman, does not live on bread alone." When you have ...children shooting children...right in the classroom... then there is a serious problem. The question I urge all Americans to ask themselves is, which candidate is willing to take the steps needed to end this violence, the candidate who has the courage to stand up to the gun lobby, and actually do something about these problems instead of simply talking about them? [looking right into the camera] As a parent, I'm as concerned as you are about our nation's problems, and I believe in restoring our civility, at the same time growing this economy, protecting the enviornment, and providing quality education to all of our nation's children.

BUSH: I think you went over again, Al. Anyway, what the Vice-President is talking about is taking your rights away. He wants to take your guns away. Then only the criminals will have the guns. You mention, school shootings... Maybe if that 6 year old girl who got shot...maybe if she had had a gun, too, she might be alive today. She could have protected herself from the other 6 year old with a gun. That's all I have to say.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you, gentlemen. That brings to a close this Presidential debate. Thank you for joining us, and I want to thank Bernard Shaw...Charlie Rose...and Larry King...for being on the panel and asking questions of the candidates.

BERNARD SHAW: It's been a pleasure.

CHARLIE ROSE: Thank you, Jim.

LARRY KING: Thanks, Jim, and I want to get in a plug for my own show, which is coming up right after this on CNN, where we'll have post-debate analysis from Bob Woodward, Dick Morris, James Carville, Wolf Blitzer, Jeff Greenfield, and a bunch more! Stick around for that, folks!

JIM LEHRER: Thank you all, and good night.

[audience applause]