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For 50 years, Howard Wilkinson has been covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. He's interviewed mayors, council members, county commissioners, governors, senators, and representatives. With so many years covering so many politicians, there must be stories to tell, right?

Watching An American Presidency Go Down The Chute In Cleveland

jimmy carter ronald reagan
In this Oct. 28, 1980 file photo, President Jimmy Carter, left, and Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, shake hands in Cleveland, Ohio, before debating before a nationwide television audience.

On Sept. 29, Cleveland will be the host of the first 2020 presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. It has been 40 years since Cleveland hosted a presidential debate, and it was one of the most memorable ever – the confrontation between challenger Ronald Reagan and incumbent Jimmy Carter.

I was a young reporter for the Troy (Ohio) Daily News at the time, and I was lucky enough to cover the debate, which took place one week before the election. It was a most memorable evening.

This is the Tales from the Trail column I wrote in January 2018 about the debate. Hope you enjoy it.

--Howard Wilkinson


It's not often in a political reporter's career that you find yourself in a room where you actually witness the moment an American president's chances of being re-elected go up in a puff of smoke.

I was in such a room on October 28, 1980, at the old Convention Center Music Hall in Cleveland, for the only head-to-head debate between Republican Ronald Reagan and Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter.

And, to this day, I believe that debate sealed Carter's fate.

There are a number of reasons I believe that, but the principle one was a four-word line delivered by Reagan. Four words. Poof! A second term for Jimmy Carter was gone. Plus a memorable but longer sentence delivered by Reagan in his closing remarks.

More on that later.

I was a 27-year-old reporter for the little Troy Daily News in Miami County, Ohio, a small-town newspaper with a circulation of about 11,000 in those days.

The TDN, as we called it, was small but mighty. In my five years there, they never hesitated to spend money sending me out on the road to cover state and national politics.

So when I went to the editors and suggested that I go to Cleveland to cover the debate, they didn't hesitate. Go forth, young man!

I scrambled to get credentialed for the event and even managed to find a hotel room in downtown Cleveland, a few blocks from the Convention Center. That was no mean feat, given the fact that thousands of journalists and politicos were streaming into Cleveland for the second Battle of Lake Erie.

Credit Jimmy Carter Presidential Library
Jimmy Carter Presidential Library
President Carter, Ronald Reagan debate in Cleveland, October 1980

The debate was to take place on Tuesday, October 28 – exactly one week from Election Day – and the polls were all over the map. Some polls gave Carter a slight edge; others favored Reagan by a small margin.

It was shaping up to be a close election.

The 90-minute Cleveland debate was the only face-to-face meeting between Carter and Reagan.

The month before, Carter had declined to participate in a debate that included Congressman John Anderson of Illinois, who was running as an Independent.

So, on Sept. 21, Reagan and Anderson met in Baltimore for a thoroughly unmemorable debate.

The only debate that really mattered was the one to be held in Cleveland's 3,000-seat Convention Center Music Hall.

Ordinarily, most reporters covering a presidential (or vice presidential) debate are not in the hall itself, but in a make-shift press room, watching a TV feed. And, these days, in another large room nearby are dozens of high profile surrogates for both candidates, available for interviews on why their candidate won and the other candidate lost.

I drove up to Cleveland from Troy on Monday. I needed to get there early to pick up credentials and check out the work conditions.

I didn't have to worry about work conditions very much. The Troy Daily News was an afternoon paper, which meant that I did not have to file an analysis story until about 10 a.m. the next day. In 1980, there were no news websites that needed constant feeding, 24/7.

So I really wasn't feeling any pressure.

On Monday afternoon, I was taking a walk in a lakeside park when I ran into an old friend from my days several years earlier at the Painesville Telegraph, a Lake County newspaper about 22 miles east of downtown Cleveland.

He told me he had an extra ticket to the debate hall and offered it to me. I jumped on it. I couldn't see any reason to be watching it on TV in a separate room when I could be there.

So, on the night of the debate, I used the ticket to get inside the Music Hall, and sat somewhere near the middle of the crowd. All I had was my reporter's notebook and a couple of reliable pens; in those days, that was all the gear I needed.

The moderator of the debate was Howard K. Smith of ABC News, a good choice to keep things rolling and on track. The panel of journalists doing the questioning included Barbara Walters of ABC, Harry Ellis from the Christian Science Monitor, William Hilliard of the Portland Oregonian, and Marvin Stone of U.S. News & World Report.

There was a huge audience watching, from coast to coast.

The debate was rolling along, fairly ho-hum, until Carter injected a head-scratching line into a long discussion of nuclear weapons.

I think to close out this discussion, it would be better to put into perspective what we're talking about, Carter said. I had a discussion with my daughter, Amy, the other day, before I came here, to ask her what the most important issue was. She said she thought nuclear weaponry and the control of nuclear arms.

Amy Carter, by the way, was 13 years old at the time.

The audience in the hall had been admonished by Smith at the beginning not to applaud or express approval or disapproval during the debate.

But I distinctly heard some groans of disbelief when the president of the United States told the country he consulted his 13-year-old daughter on nuclear policy.

But then came the knock-out blow.

Carter was making the argument that Reagan, if elected, would try to cut Medicare – an issue that would, no doubt, rile up older Americans. And older Americans vote.

Reagan went into his Old Hollywood Actor mode, put on an exasperated look, shook his head, once, and delivered the line that is most remembered from that debate:

There you go again.

There was nothing the president could say. You could feel the air suck out of the room. People in the audience were giving each other knowing looks: Reagan 1, Carter 0.

Only four words, but four words people would remember.

And, then, in his closing statement, Reagan delivered another unforgettable line:

Are you better off than you were four years ago?

In a nation that had struggled in recent years from runaway inflation and the energy crisis and terrorism abroad, you could just see people all over the nation, watching on television, hollering No!

Reagan 2, Carter 0. Game, set and match.

People poured out of the hall after the debate in the stiff wind off Lake Erie, all talking about what they had seen and heard. I interviewed several; and was hard-pressed to find people who thought the president had come out on top.

Being a 27-year-old with no common sense whatsoever, I then got into my car and made the long, late night drive back to Troy – about 215 miles.

I went straight to the Troy Daily News office and wrote my analysis, which came to what I though was an obvious conclusion: that Jimmy Carter had taken a major hit on that stage in Cleveland.

I was surprised the next day to see that the Plain Dealer, the morning newspaper in Cleveland, had an entirely different take. Its front page banner headline read, Carter and Reagan trade punches but both on their feet at the bell.


A week later, when the votes were counted, it appears I was closer to the mark. Reagan won the popular vote in a landslide; and, in the Electoral College, won 44 states and 489 electoral votes to 49 for Carter.

It's why I have always said that election can turn on the smallest things.

Sometimes all it takes is four words.

This story was first published Jan. 27, 2018 and has been updated.

tales from the trail
Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.