Presidential Debate History: The Day Both Candidates Stayed Silent

In their first debate on Monday, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will talk. They may be polite or they may be pugnacious, but they will talk. A lot.

That wasn’t the case forty years ago, at the first debate between President Gerald R. Ford and Gov. Jimmy Carter, when the challenge, for an excruciating 27 minutes, wasn’t over what to say, but how to stay silent.

With only 8 minutes to go in the 90-minute telecast, a technical glitch knocked off the sound, rendering the pool feed mute. Not knowing when it would be restored, Ford and Carter just stood at their lecterns, not saying a word, until the glitch was fixed. It was traced to a blown transformer.

For a total of 27 minutes, they just stared and waited, “almost like robots,” Carter later said in a 2000 interview with Jim Lehrer. “We didn’t move around, we didn’t walk over and shake hands with each other. We just stood there.”

Ford later said, “I suspect both of us would have liked to sit down and relax while the technicians were fixing the system, but I think both of us were hesitant to make any gesture that might look like we weren’t physically or mentally able to handle a problem like this.”

The panelists who were tasked with asking the candidates questions also had to stay mum. Among them was Elizabeth Drew, who recalls that “we were all just like statues” as they waited for the problem to be fixed.

“The problem was we never knew when the sound would go back on,” Drew said in an interview this week. No one wanted to be caught making an extraneous comment should it be restored.

On TV, the networks cut away to their anchors as the the problem was being fixed. “You don’t have a screwdriver or a pair of pliers on you do you, Doug?” NBC News’ David Brinkley quipped to correspondent Douglas Kiker, who managed to round up Carter and Ford campaign surrogates such as Jody Powell and James Baker for interviews in the interim. Even Carter’s wife, Rosalynn, spoke to the press as the technical situation was being hashed out.

Eventually, the sound was restored and the debate resumed.

As strange as the moment was, the event in Philadelphia on Sept. 23, 1976 was regarded as a success, as it jump-started the general election debates. After the Richard Nixon-John F. Kennedy debates of 1960, the next three cycles saw no general election match ups, in part because incumbent presidents saw no upside to participating and because equal time laws put networks at risk of having to invite minor party candidates to participate as well.

But in the lead up to the 1976 campaign, the FCC ruled that debates could be treated as bona fide news events, exempt from equal time provisions, as long as they were presented by non-broadcast entities. The League of Women Voters sponsored the debate, and they found that Ford, languishing in the polls, was willing to debate Carter, who as challenger was eager to take the stage against the incumbent.

Despite that technical glitch, the debates have endured ever since, to the point where they are now established tradition. At least one presidential matchup has been held every cycle since 1976, and the buildup to the events only seems to grow with each election campaign. (Drew recently wrote in the Washington Post that the debates “test qualities that have nothing to do with governing.”)

Newton Minow, who was co-chair of the debates that year, recalls what may be the wittiest comment about the glitch. It came from Eugene McCarthy, the former Minnesota senator running as an independent that year, who had actually sued to be included.

After the debate was over, a reporter asked McCarthy what he thought of the extended silence. McCarthy responded, “I never noticed.”

Photo: White House, Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library, David Hume Kennerly.

The debate is here, and the technical glitch occurs at the 1:05 mark.

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